Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Book Review - Donna Tartt's The Secret History

The Secret History by Donna Tratt
Published by: Vintatge
Publication Date: 1992
Format: Paperback, 559 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy
Richard arrives at Hampen College in New England because it's the only school that will take him in and give him some money. It's an eccentric little school and Richard doesn't quite know what he will study. Having studied Greek back in California, he is drawn to this elite circle that has formed around Julian, a professor who holds his classes in his office as a kind of salon, wherein he shall be your sole educator, in the vein of true classicism. Once Richard finally finagles his way in, he becomes a part of this eccentric circle consisting of Henry, the nominal leader, Francis, the literary closet gay, Bunny, the rather dimwitted leach, and Charles and Camilla, the down at heels twins. They are his life entire. Every moment is spent with them or thinking of them. Yet there are secrets. One secret will tear them apart from within. Because, what if, in the pursuit of knowledge, to experience all the Greeks did, a ceremony was performed. A ceremony that had unintended consequences. A ceremony that will fracture the group. A ceremony that was evil and will leave evil in it's wake.

This book reaches the lofty position of one of the worst books I've read in a long time, not just because of the glacial pacing and the unlikable characters, but because of two majorly flaws. There is a disconnect in the book between what it is and what it wants to be. This dislocation gives the book a jarring feeling, like trying to force a square peg in a round hole. The book felt so not of it's time. There is a timelessness to it that feels routed in the early half of the 20th century. You feel like you could be at a small sequestered college surrounded by autumnal foliage and the cast of Brideshead Revisited would wander around the corner. But a coke addict with a boom box is what you usually get. This book is shockingly in the 80s. It doesn't feel like the 80s. The little quiet and queer Greek scholars feel of another time. Which I guess might have been Donna Tartt's purpose... but if it was, it failed. Every time something "80s" happened it felt like an anachronism. A splash of cold water in the face that made me think for the 100th time, why am I still reading this book.

The disconnect isn't just a temporal one, but one of character. Bunny has purposely conflicting descriptions. He is young, very clothes conscious, is a skinflint, so your mind starts to build this very wane, dapper man, who might be slightly effeminate. A Sebastian Flyte of the 80s if you would. For chapters you have this image, and it builds, and gains force, this is who Bunny is. With a name like Bunny, how could you not get this image. Yet then Tartt contradicts this all with, no, he's a good old boy who's a homophobe that is very muscularly built with a fondness for sports. Say what!?! The name Bunny was ironic? You let me believe this image for hundreds of pages to then throw in a curve and make this character no longer work for me. People are built of contradictions, this is true. Yet why go out of the way to obviously create all these Brideshead references, with Venice and Bunny and what have you, only to go, fooled you. Rule one of writing, you don't alienate your reader. They'll get snarky, they'll write crap reviews, and they will never buy your books again, and what will you do without an income?

The second problem I had was with the issue they had of what to do with Bunny. Kill him, move on, the end, I just cut your book by 400 pages Donna. Because that is the evil that comes of their ceremony, Bunny becomes a blackmailer. These people don't have morals, we've already seen that. Incest, it's ok, in fact, it's kind of sexy. Being bisexual with friends occasionally, that's fine too. Heavy drug use, alcohol abuse, Bacchanalia's, murder, they've done it all. Yet they hesitate to kill the one person who they loath, who is blackmailing them, and who was never much of a friend. Uh... where did the sudden morals come from? Perhaps because Donna Tartt was being paid by the word and the longer she could stretch out this anguish, this pointless debate about the inevitable, the more healthy her check at the end.

I didn't know what to expect going into this book. I had heard so many things about it. I had some sort of vague idea that this was going to be an intriguing mystery about some horrific crime, something "beyond the boundaries of normal morality". Instead I got 500 plus pages of whiny eccentric Greek scholars dithering about the inevitable and revelling in debauchery in such a boring way, it didn't feel debauched. The only mystery this book offered was of it's laudatory nature. Please, why? I agree with another review I read, I resent the time I spent on this book. Next please?


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