Monday, December 29, 2014

Book Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt



Fiction. I was searching for something good to read that was available immediately from my library's digital consortium (I have enough on my hold list), so I looked up Donna Tartt because I enjoyed The Goldfinch immensely (her most recent work, she won The Pulitzer Prize for it).  I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and I love the intelligence of her writing, but she most definitely tackles some deep and disturbing parts of the human psyche; so, if you are looking for something light to read, this is certainly not it.  However, if you are up for something a little more challenging than your average top seller, this is a good one because she is an excellent storyteller.

This work never exactly states what year it is, which I found both profoundly annoying and intriguing at the same time.  I was originally guessing the late 60s but then she mentions some styles of clothing that seem more like the 80s, and then a bit later some things that seem like the 90s (music primarily), so I am still not terribly certain of when exactly the events took place, even though I have finished the work.  I am fairly certain she meant for that to be the point: we live like the eras we identify with, small upscale colleges seem to warp you back to the late 60s when learning was valued before the sole focus now of obtaining a piece of paper to "get you a job," and so that we as readers do not obsess about spotting popular culture, but rather that we focus on the timelessness of these kinds of relationships and the people who have them.

The central story revolves around the protagonist Richard Papen, a small town California man, attending an exclusive college in Vermont called Hampden.  He eventually succeeds in his goal of becoming a part of a tiny group of classics majors, six in all, who center their lives around the tutelage of Professor Julian Morrow.  The work is quite like a Greek tragedy itself, slowly unfolding the background of events that lead up to the death of one of the characters, which we are told about from the very beginning of the novel.  You get everything very Greek in here: murder, incest, much imbibing of alcohol, highbrow thinking simultaneously with lowbrow behavior, the ruling classes, exclusivity, friendship, oddities of love, devotion to learning (not merely memorizing items for a test), and of course a dark ending.  If you are up for something that is complicated but a pleasure to read, if you value the effort real learning takes, and if you like the darker side of humanity, then I recommend this work to you.  Donna Tartt is an amazing writer, and I can see why she spends so much time working on each of her novels (about a decade): they are highly evolved microcosms of humanity, not remotely like easy beach readers that people toss to the side.  The ideas will stew around in your brain for quite some time.

And so it goes...


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