Tuesday, December 09, 2014

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

My recent introduction to Donna Tartt and her third novel, The Goldfinch, so overwhelmed me, I craved more of her work.  The Secret History is her first novel, and it proved to be every bit as exciting, suspenseful, and interesting.

I have begun to compare Tartt to Iris Murdoch, the Booker Prize-winning English novelist for the depth and breadth of details and character development.  Like Murdoch, Tartt fills her novels with a large and disparate group of characters.  Unfortunately, Tartt is a slow writer.  So, while her second novel, The Little Friend waits patiently on my TBR pile, I will, most likely have to wait almost decade for her fourth.

The Secret History is narrated by Richard Papen, a transplant from California to Hampden College, an elite New England school.  Richard has previously studied Greek, and when he learns of a charismatic Professor, Julian Morrow, who hand-picks five students, his interest is immediately piqued.  Julian tightly controls his students.  He only allows five, and these select few take courses only with Professor Morrow.  After initial rejections, Richard persists, and is finally admitted to the class.

His classmates are an interesting collection.  Henry Winter, a tall, brilliant scholar, more or less leads the group.  Twins Charles and Camilla Macaulay, Francis Abernathy, and Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran round out the clique.  All these students come from relatively wealthy families – albeit with varying levels of access to their trust funds.  Richard, however, comes from a middle class family, and he has extremely limited resources.

As to be expected, Tartt provides detailed introductions to each of these characters.  She describes Henry as, “well over six feet – dark haired, with a square jaw, and coarse pale skin.  He might have been handsome had his features been less set, or his eyes, behind the glasses, less expressionless and blank.  He wore dark English suits and carried an umbrella […] and he walked stiffly through the throngs of hippies and beatniks and preppies and punks with the self-conscious formality of an old ballerina, surprising in one so large as he” (17-18). 

Bunny, “smaller [than Henry] -- but not by much – was a sloppy blonde boy, rosy-cheeked and gum-chewing, with a relentlessly cheery demeanor and his fists thrust deep in the pockets of his knee-sprung trousers.  He wore the same jacket every day, a shapeless brown tweed that was frayed at the elbows and short in the sleeves, and his sandy hair was parted on the left, so a long forelock fell over one bespectacled eye” (18). 

Tartt describes Francis as “the most exotic of the set. […] he dressed like Alfred Douglas […] [with] beautiful starchy shirts with French cuffs; magnificent neckties; a black greatcoat that billowed behind him as he walked and made him look like a cross between a student prince and Jack the Ripper” (18).

The twins, “looked very much alike, with heavy dark-blond hair and epicene faces as clear, as cheerful and grave, as a couple of Flemish angels” (18).  Richard instantly develops a crush on Camilla.

The group finds themselves so intensely immersed in Greek and Latin, they frequently speak to each other in these ancient tongues.  They begin experimenting with rituals and celebrations mentioned in Homer, Virgil, and other classical writers.  And then a serious accident occurs, and the group descends – to use Joseph Campbell’s term -- into the belly of the whale.

Despite its length, every page of this thrilling and suspenseful story binds the reader more and more closely to the clique.  I frequently had the eerie sensation I was in the room with Julian and his students.  The Secret History by Donna Tartt rises near to the top of my favorites for 2014.  I can’t wait to get to her second novel.  5 stars.

Chiron, 11/27/14

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