Monday, July 18, 2011

Book Nook - The Secret History

The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

I bought this book at a local used bookstore several years ago for a measly $0.50.  I had already read the book and so when I spotted it on the shelf, I felt as if I had discovered buried treasure.  And this book is indeed a treasure - a literary one - and I was almost ashamed to pay such a small sum for it.  Even today I feel that I should send Donna Tartt a check in the mail, because really she deserves much more than what I paid!  (This brings up an interesting side-topic, I think: what is the value of great literature?  Priceless, surely.)

Anyway, onto the novel: this is a story of 6 students at a small university in Vermont that comprise the Classic Greek department's student body.  Our narrator is Richard, from Plano, California, who is intrigued by this exclusive group.  Julian is their professor - he is whimsical and brilliant (a "divinity" as one character refers to him).  The others are Henry (the leader), Francis (rich), the twins Camilla and Charles (ethereal) and Bunny (loud).  If my descriptions are lacking it is due to Tartt's amazing ability to create 3-dimensional characters.  These people live and breathe and practically jump off the pages - I can't even sum them up in a sentence or two because they are all so complex and alive.

The plot is equally complex.  The group murders Bunny.  Don't worry, knowing this doesn't spoil the story at all because this fact is revealed in the first sentence of the prologue.  However, the circumstances which lead up to this event are a surprise so I won't say anymore.  The novel is broken up into two books and the pacing of book one is quick (conversly, the pace of book two is much slower until we near the climax of the novel - this is my only real complaint about it.  However, Tartt has some surprises in store for the reader in book two).  I had trouble putting it down once I started to get into the story.

Some may read this lengthy novel and critique it for needing some editing.  In all truth, it probably could have been edited down a bit - there are a lot of scenes that detail drinking, hanging around reading, smoking & sleeping until late afternoon.  However, as I re-read the novel recently, I think even the scenes that seem like excess really help to define the characters and setting.  It's a true testament to Donna Tartt's excellent writing, because not every writer can pull that off.  She knows her craft well, and leads us down the road with skill.   Actually, it's more like a maze than a road, and only Tartt knows the way out, but we must follow (and put our trust in) her through all the twists and turns.

There are a great many references to Greek literature & language, pop culture, Latin, religion, you name it and none of them are annotated.  Doesn't matter though because you can infer the meaning based on the sentence & what's going on in the story.  I just bring this up because Tartt must have done a great deal of research for the novel, as these things are all expertly included (in fact, she acknowledges a great number of people).  It helps make the characters just that much more believable (and in some ways, that much more intimidating, as Richard experiences when first meeting them).

I don't think whatever praise I can give it will do the novel justice.  It's almost like trying to critique the Venus de Milo (keeping with the ancient Greek theme) - great art and literature is timeless and stands on its own.  The Secret History is a great work of literature for its richly drawn characters, well executed plot, vivid settings and intelligent prose.  Like great art, it can be debated, but this is my $0.02 (or in this case, my $0.50).


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