Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

When it comes to books, I'm like Anakin Skywalker in Attack of the Clones. I was raised and schooled to read literary books, but then I met Padme Amidala in the form of romance novels and turned my back on everything that I was taught was good. The difference between us is, Anakin lost his arm but I lost my credibility with snobs who use my love of the dark side to try and invalidate my opinion on anything they consider to have merit.

THE SECRET HISTORY is the quintessential snob book, in my opinion. It's a bloated mess of self-importance, and reading it is like being water-boarded by a thesaurus. It features a cast of snobby, pretentious characters, and our hero, Richard, wants to be just like them. It's kind of like Mean Girls meets Heathers, in a way, if the characters were like, "On Wednesdays we translate Greek mythology" and had Bacchanalian orgies instead of suicide pacts. I'm sure all the lit snobs just died a little inside at that comparison, but hey, if the gladiator sandal fits.

While the pastoral college initially seems idealistic, utopian even, all that changes when Richard meets Henry, Charles, Camila, Francis, and Bunny, and a chance encounter to prove his worth ends up catching the interest of their mentor, the reclusive and elitist Classics teacher, Julian, and bringing him into their exclusive fold. At first, he's the odd one out, looking in wistfully at these cool kids who seem like a fashion spread for Miu Miu, jealous of the secrets they're keeping from him, and all the times they spend hanging out without him. But then a murder happens, and then another murder happens, and he realizes soon that ignorance is bliss.

As far as lit-fic goes, this is pretty trashy, which is maybe why I liked it so much. 500+ pages of rich white assholes doing each other dirty? Nothing gets my trashy heart a-fluttering like some quality drama. I liked her other book, THE GOLDFINCH, a bit better, because I feel like the stakes felt a little higher in that book, and it was more reminiscent of actual classic literature, a modern GREAT EXPECTATIONS or DAVID COPPERFIELD, if you will. THE SECRET HISTORY was trying to be a Greek tragedy, I think, but it didn't really work all that well, except to thumb its nose at hubris and remind you that murdering your friends and family members often brings a visit from the Furies.

If you're reading this because it's a "mystery" you're going to be disappointed, because this is the slowest damn mystery I've ever read. Sherlock Holmes encased in carbonite would be faster. Given the dense way it's written and the important expositional dialogue that happens on each page, skimming this book is next to impossible, too. It's slow going. I'd say this is more of a character study than an actual mystery, although there is mystery and murder, as well as numerous other things that are apt to get your maiden aunts in a tizzy, like incest, drug use, suicide, and self-harm.

THE SECRET HISTORY caused a big trend of literary trash involving kids doing each other dirty, which I appreciate because that is one of my favorite tropes and I felt obligated to return to the book that started it all off so I could pay proper homage to it. I did like it, and thought the writing was lovely (albeit slightly torturous), but it went on for about 100 pages more than it should have in my opinion, and the ending - like the Greek tragedies - is rather demoralizing. Caveat lector.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

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