Five Things About THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt
This is going to be a difficult book for me to talk about. I finished it days ago but I find myself a little verklempt, I’ll admit. It’s been a long time since a book has stuck with me so completely as this one, and I say that having had a quite remarkable year for memorable reading. So, the summary is straightforward and completely unhelpful: a Californian boy arrives at a private New England college where he falls in with a bunch of snooty but delightful Classics majors who happen to have accidentally killed someone during a Bacchian rite they just happened to be conducting in their spare time. That is a totally truthful depiction of some of the events in the book, but it is not what the book is ABOUT. I will do my best to convince you to pick it up in other ways. Without further ado, here are five things about THE SECRET HISTORY.
1. This is not a new book. All of your friends have already read it. You probably already have a copy of it, actually, that you picked up at some point in the last decade, and now it molders in a box in your master bedroom closet, the one that you never unpacked last time you moved. Right next to your college alarm clock and two boxes of 9-volt batteries and that shirt you can’t throw out because it was a gift. The reason why I’m pointing out that it’s not a new book is because, since reading it, I’ve been told by several people that it is their Favorite Book Ever. It is one thing for you to read a book six months before and maintain it as a Favorite Book. It is something more remarkable when a book can elicit a passionate response from readers twenty years after its publication.
2. This book is full of terrible people. Pretty much the lot of the people that our narrator Richard meets are awful in some way. Self-centered or elitist or potheads or sociopathic or just people with really loud voices in quiet places. Even Richard is not exactly a great guy. But the magic of this novel is that, somehow, you find these terrible people deeply sympathetic. I need to go back and reread it to understand this strange enchantment. How do I find them so charming? Why do I want them to like Richard? GIVE ME YOUR SECRETS, BOOK.
3. This is not a whodunit. You are told pretty much the Bad Thing That Happens in the prologue, and you can see it coming like a comet for much of the book. The effect of this, however, is to create a lovely, unbearable tension and anticipation. And when the moment comes — in a line that involves ferns — it is so deliciously awful. I actually exhaled gloriously and put the book down for a moment because I was so delighted by the actual pay off.
4. It’s long. It’s over 200,000 words long, I think, and 600 pages in my edition. It took me five days to read it. And it’s not just long, it’s dense. One of the blurbs on the inside of the jacket said that it read like a 19th century novel, and I don’t think that’s at all unearned. It takes its time developing atmosphere and character quirks and some of the days in the novel take dozens of pages to unfold. It is not a novel to speed through. It’s a novel to get stuck in. I put it down when I got too tired, when I felt like I was starting to skim.
5. WHAT ELSE CAN I SAY? I adore the characters so much. I adore the hint —the breath — of the supernatural. I adore the slow, building tension and the sense that I, as a reader, was being skillfully manipulated. Yes, that. That last one. I think that is what I love the most about this novel. I get the idea that Donna Tartt was completely in control of this novel. Everything is measured and deliberate and just perfectly done, and I trust her entirely. Fifty pages in, I knew that she was going to tell me a story I was going to enjoy, even if I had no idea what it was going to be.
Man, I just am going to flail about some more. Go read it.