Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

I finished Donna Tartt's The Secret History over a week ago, but I haven't wanted to write about it because I can't quite decide that I thought of it. Several people have suggested I read this book over the past few years, and I can certainly see why. For one thing, it's set at a small liberal arts college in Vermont. (I live in NYC now, but I spent my childhood as a Middlebury College faculty brat.) The fictional Hamden College of Tartt's book bears a much stronger relationship to Bennington College (which Tartt herself attended) than Middlebury, but it's still a very familiar atmosphere. And I did love the atmosphere of this book, in both senses of the word--both the physical setting and the mood. There's an intoxicating quality about Tartt's writing that makes this book hard to put down. 

I think what made me feel so conflicted about this book was that I like Hercule Poirot, do not approve of murder! In The Secret History, the narrator, Richard, tells us in the first few pages that he and four friends have killed the 6th member of their academic (and friend) group, Bunny. This book turns the mystery genre on its head. It isn't a case of who-done-it? but more a case of how and why did these people come to commit a murder. 

I don't really think it's fair to say, though that I objected to Tartt's asking the reader to sympathize with the conspirators to murder and murderer, because she doesn't exactly do that. I would say that I kept reading more out of a hypnotic fascination than out of sympathy for the characters. But I think there's a certain amount of sympathy for all 5 of them--I didn't realize this though, until their dirty secrets come out later in the book. The murder is revealed so early in the narrative, that you get to know the characters knowing that they're going to commit a murder, so their other flaws come as more of an upset. 

One of the reasons I was interested in reading this book was that I knew Tana French, on of my favorite living authors, has said it was highly influential to her work. The Likeness, is very clearly influenced by this book--as well as by Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar. Another work I couldn't stop thinking of while reading this book was Alfred Hitchcock's film, Rope, with a screenplay by Arthur Laurents. Rope is loosely based on the infamous Leopold and Loeb case. I was especially intrigued by the role influential teachers play in the two pieces. Henry and Julian's relationship in The Secret History particularly reminded me of Brendan and Rupert in Rope

I haven't been sure how I feel about The Secret History, but I know this, I couldn't put it down when I was reading it, and now that I'm finished, I keep thinking about it. This is a book that's stayed with me.

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