Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Review of "The Secret History" by Donna Tartt

I heard of this book from a famous homosexual, celibate, elderly, Catholic blogger, a woman, and thought I’d check it out. I’d never heard of it before, so I ran with no previous thoughts on the book, which can have its advantages.

The story is of a small, elite group of undergraduates studying ancient Greek at a private university in Vermont with a professor who takes no salary because he’s independently wealthy. The book, though promising to be about ancient Greek philosophy and all its mysteries, did not live up to my initial expectations, as small as they were. What could’ve been a nice undercurrent through the novel ends up being a group of touch points that serve as catchphrases between the characters and gives them a false sense of superiority over everyone else, which in reality they are a group of immoral, cold, drunken, kids who think they have a lot of the world figured out when in fact they know very little. There is a sense of wisdom to the group that does distinguish them from most undergraduates, yet for most of the novel they seem nearly indistinguishable from the generic brand, highly intelligent private college student. However, they do try to understand and live out the principles they see in the works they study, which does deserve notice. Nonetheless, the layout of the story makes for an oil and water mixture between ancient cultures and the modern world, which doesn’t make sense to them, much less to everyone else.

Also, it’s unfortunate that so many novels rely on murder and suicide to create drama in a plot. However, I could use the same criticism on Shakespeare- because we all know there’s plenty of murder and suicide in his plays- which makes the case for using it well. Sure, we’ll have a murder here or there and we’ll make it exciting as the characters lie or plot to find the killer, but when so much is centered around it, I don’t know what to say. This novel made it clear to me how much death we see in stories human’s tell, and how hard it is to work around that base to create something memorable. It doesn’t work here.

The strong points of the novel are the characters Henry, Julian, and the twins Charles and Camilla. Tartt does a good job creating the icy disposition of Julian, and Henry’s ignorant, falsely secured, and blind admiration for the man. He is presented as a desirable man with a fresh perspective on the world, rooted in ancient literature, but like pagan philosophy, there is a dark side, an emptiness and hopelessness that hides behind an overly cerebral view of the self and others. It’s his type that gives the West such a bad name, along with individualism. Nearly all characters are tragic and doomed from the start, which gives the story a nice Greek tragedy feel to it, but it also never lightens up. As a result, the read was exhausting.

Overall, the promises to be revealed, that seem telegraphed when written, don’t pay off to a satisfactory reading experience. The Vermont setting and the dreary, drunken college life of the central characters gets tiresome and the numbness of being drunk makes the story lukewarm.

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