I have been procrastinating writing my review of The Secret History by Donna Tartt. True, I am behind in everything anyway and just finished my 2015 Summary of Books last week, but there’s more to my reluctance than that. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. It’s a dark novel with a pervasive sense of dread, while I normally prefer more uplifting books, and there wasn’t a single likable character. Still, though, I found it oddly compelling and stuck with it through almost three weeks until I finished it.
There’s no big twist at the end of this novel – you know right from the first page of the prologue that the main characters murdered one of their group – Bunny – and left him for dead in a ravine, where a big snowstorm covered their crime for ten days. That’s right on page 1. The rest of the book goes back and tells the story from the beginning, from the perspective of Richard, a young man brought up in a decidedly lower-middle class family in a small town in California, where his father owned the local gas station. Richard hated his life and his family (and the feeling seemed mutual), and was eager to escape to a better life. He got a scholarship to a small private college in Vermont called Hampden, and it was there that he met the others.
Richard soon fell in with a small group of wealthy, snobbish students, keeping his own modest beginnings a secret. He found his way into their very exclusive (just six students) Classics program, taught by an eccentric but charismatic professor. The other students were Henry, a large, quiet young man whose father worked his way up and ran an empire; effeminate Francis, whose very young mother was more like an older sister to him; jovial Bunny, whose father was a banker; and the twins, Charles and Camilla, who’d been orphaned at a young age and brought up by family. While the rest of the students at Hampden were living a normal college life – running to a wide variety of classes, hanging out in the dorms, going to keg parties on Friday nights, Richard’s group studied Greek (and spoke and wrote it), lived in apartments filled with antiques, and led a very reclusive and unusual life.
It took me more than a hundred pages to figure out when the novel was set, in large part because Richard and his cohorts dressed and acted like students from a much earlier age. They wore suits and ties, drove old cars, watched old movies, and even talked like people from a much earlier time. At first I thought the novel was set on a college campus in the 1950’s! This kind of drove me crazy for a while until the clues added up (keg parties and pot on campus but no computers or cell phones, lots of payphones, certain movies, etc.), and I realized it was set in the 1980’s. I was in college in the 1980’s – it was nothing like what this strange group experienced! But I digress…
It’s a very odd group of students and a very odd story. Despite the closeness of their group of six, there are plenty of secrets and lies, including Richard’s entire life story. About three-quarters of the novel tracks the events leading up to the murder, then the rest is the fevered, frantic days afterward, their guilt and anxiety, the funeral, and finally, at the very end, where they all are now. Don’t expect any happy endings here!
The tone of the novel is dark and brooding (as are the personalities of some of its characters), as you might expect for a story centered on the murder of one student by his closest friends. The focus on ancient Greece and the group’s odd retro habits set on a 1980’s college campus make it an unusual story – I saw one reviewer note that it follows the structure of a Greek tragedy. Although there is a murder at its center, this is no fast-paced thriller but a slow, gradual, complex literary novel, where the focus is on the characters (though there is plenty of violence, too). As I said, I generally prefer more uplifting fiction – and at least one character I can root for – but there’s no denying the depth and captivating pull of this unique story.
559 pages, Vintage Contemporaries (division of Random House)
P.S. While Tartt’s more recent novel, The Goldfinch, shows much of the same writing skill and literary quality as The Secret History, I enjoyed The Goldfinch much more. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next!