Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Modern Greek Tragedy

I finished this book almost a week ago, and have been pondering it ever since. Originally chosen for the Southern Reading Challenge, The Secret History by Donna Tartt (576 pgs, Ballantine 1992), this book isn't Southern in the least. However, the author, is. So I guess that it will possibly qualify it as a challenge book!

"The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He'd been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history -- state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter; the college closed, the dye factory in Hampden had shut down, people coming from New Hampshire, upstate New York, as far away as Boston."

Richard Papen came to Hampden College as a transfer from a small school in California. Why did he choose this tiny, but prestigious college so far from home? He liked the brochure. And it was about as far away from his parents as he could get. His father wanted him to take over the family gas station and his mother couldn't understand his need to go to college at all. Anxious to be rid of the monotony that his life had become in the small tract home where his parents really didn't seem to care much for him, he applied to Hampden. With a lot of help from financial aide, he was accepted. But mounting the bus to take him to Vermont changed his life forever.

When he arrived, his chosen major was English Literature. But he was fascinated by the students who were "Classics" majors. Richard had wanted to continue his study of Greek, but found that he was not able to register for the classes. They were taught by the enigmatic professor, Julian Morrow. He hand-picked the students for the Classics, and only allowed a handful into the program. While Richard wasn't all that interested in the major beforehand, it seems that you always want what you can't have. Determined to be a part of this group, Richard tried to register with Julian, but was shot down immediately. Only when he happened upon the small group in the library trying to finish some Greek homework did his luck change. He was able to help them find some answers, and was indeed admitted to the program. However, this program was all-encompassing, and Richard had to drop all his other classes.

There were 5 other students in the program: Henry Winter, a tall, dark-haired boy that worse glasses and English suits. He was brilliant and wealthy. He studied endlessly and spoke 6 different languages. Edmund, "Bunny" Corcoran, was loud and rude, but lovable in a way. Francis Abernathy, was elegant and refined. He wore exotic clothes and pince-nez glasses. And again, came from money. The last two of the group, were the twins: Charles and Camilla Macaulay. They were blond and beautiful, sophisticated in a way that Richard had never known. And now he was one of them, although he always seemed to find himself on the fringe of the group. But eventually, they accepted him and even started inviting him to go away to Francis' Aunt's home in the country for weekends.

This book is basically 2 halves. The first is before Bunny is murdered. And the second half is the aftermath of said murder. Strangely enough, it's a bit of a mystery even though you know in the first page who is murdered and who is responsible. Donna Tartt's writing is amazing. It's beautiful, and the story which is a tough read seems to flow with ease.

Does such a thing as "the fatal flaw", that showy dark
crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn't. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a
morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs


Tartt takes a group of kids, albeit not exactly the normal college students, and creates an intense character study of them. She throws in a planned murder and then creates an atmosphere in which their world seemingly breaks down inch by inch. Of all the characters, Richard is probably the least defined. But he is basically a good kid caught up in circumstances that were completely beyond his control. The controlling factor is Henry. From one moment to the next, you have no idea whether he is a soft-spoken intellect with only a desire to fit in, or a cold, calculating man who will do anything to achieve what he really desires: power and control over others.

Even the minor characters in the book are well-written and thought out. Julian, the enigmatic professor who seemingly loves his students. But might just love himself and his reputation more. Judy Poovey, another friend of Richard's is loud and funny. And Cloke Rayburn, the campus drug-dealer, who is a prep school friend of Bunny's, gets caught up in the disappearance of his friend and has no idea why.

Underlying all of this is the group's desire to follow Henry, even though in their minds they know it is wrong. Henry is such an incredible force, and is the epicenter of the entire story. What are his morals? And do they fit with the morals of today's society?? Donna Tartt lays it all on the line, and leaves it up to you to decide the answer to these questions. A brilliant, well-written novel, The Secret History is going to be one that sticks with me for quite some time. I realize this isn't much in the way of reviews, and I know there is no way to do justice to this book. But if it gives you a peek into a fantastic story and makes you want to pick it up, then I guess my job is done! 5/5


S. Krishna said...

I read this book last year, and while it was completely different than what I expected (I don't even remember what I expected), I thought it was an amazing book!

Stephanie said...

s. krishna - I'm with you. I had no idea what it was about. But it did turn out to be a wonderful book!

Anonymous said...

This book has been on my TBR list for ages. But after I read The Little Friend, which I found kind of disappointing (the writing was good but the story was blah), I kind of lost most of my incentive. But, while the reviews for The Little Friend have been mixed, The Secret History always gets great reviews.

Maybe I'll move this one up the list a bit.

Carl V. Anderson said...

I think you did an admirable job on your review, I am so thankful I read this long before the days of book blogs as I would hate to attempt to do any justice to it in a review. Well done.

It is such an incredible read, her writing is amazing. I read it years ago when I was laid up on a 3 or 4 day flu run and I think the whole feverish, weirdness of the way I felt made this book stand out to me even more. It was a hard read at times but I was just sucked in, turning page after page. All these years later, and it has been more than 10, the way I feel about that reading experience and my memories of it have stuck with me. For some inexplicable reason back with I heard The Freshmen by Verve Pipe for the first time it instantly brought The Secret History to mind and the two have been forever linked in my mind. Have you heard it?:

I know I'm absolutely crazy, but I guess we all new that! Again, great review.

Literary Feline said...

Great review, Stephanie. I haven't heard too much about this one, but you've certainly got me intrigued.

Kailana said...

I own this book, but of course, haven't read it yet! I did buy it for my grandmother, though, and she told me it was really good!

Ladytink_534 said...

Great review! I think I might have heard something about this before but I’m not sure. Glad you seem to enjoy it so much. Sounds like it would make a good reading group read.

Iliana said...

I enjoyed your review Stephanie - you brought back the book for me. It's been ages since I've read this and have forgotten a lot! I have her book The Little Friend waiting on my shelves.

Ana S. said...

What a great review, Stephanie. I really need to read this one...I've heard so many great things about it over the years.

Andi said...

I'm sooo behind on my blog reading, but I just had to say, "SO GLAD YOU LIKED THIS ONE." As much as I did, no less.

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

Wow--5/5!! I'm definitely going to put this one on the list. Thanks for the great review!

Anna said...

I've never heard of this book, but I'm definitely going to check it out. Great review!

--Diary of an Eccentric

Pam said...

Love love LOVE this book! And an excellent review!

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This is one of my favorite books. I read it years ago and have probably purchased a dozen copies to hand off to friends. I love the storyline, the rich setting, complex characters, and tragic undertone of it all. Donna Tartt likes her words, so be ready to fully engage as you join this mysterious world of privilege and corruption! said...