Thursday, January 23, 2014

Book 13: The Secret History

I've heard about this novel quite a few times, and have had it on my "I should get around to that" list for a while but somehow, while I knew the novel existed, my idea of what it was about was completely off.  Maybe it was the title but I think I was expecting something along the lines of secret societies meet National Treasure and that the characters would use old literature and culture to discover some deep conspiracy and secret - but in a very literary and thought provoking way rather than pure popcorn fiction.  I would have rather read that book than the one I read.
This wasn't a bad book but it would have been better trimmed by at least one hundred pages.  The novel reveals a key part of the narrative in the first chapter, and from there flashes back to show how it all developed before chronicling the aftermath.  Basically, five students murder a classmate, Bunny, by pushing him off a cliff, and the question is why did they do it and will they get away with it?  Richard is one of the five killers but he is also the newest member of this odd and tight knit group, all of whom fascinate him.
The twins, Camilla and Charles, Henry, Francis and Bunny are the five students in Julian's Greek class, majoring in the classics.  All of them are from privileged, well off families, and they are the only ones that Julian, an eccentric professor, has accepted into his classics program.  Richard, though coming from a working to middle class background, is fascinated by this world, and with the right clothes and presentation is able to join this group even if it takes him a while to get accepted.
The thing is that none of these characters are likable.  The closest might be Francis and Charles because they seem the least developed.  While the students admire Julian and see him as a friend, he is blind to his students' real situation and his teaching methods encourage them to see themselves as different and better.  After all, he thinks the poor that accept their role and status should be praised.  Given their backgrounds, the students are obviously already used to being treated as better but they certainly didn't need this professor boosting their egos anymore.
Richard is just as bad if not worse because he wants so much to belong and is blinded by these people's obvious faults.  He simply shrugs off murder, and keeps emphasizing how great all these people are despite obvious hindsight, writing this narrative a few years after the occurrences.  Though this was originally published in 1992, the time period of the narrative can feel difficult to narrow down, and it is only in the second half that I felt the novel started having cultural references that truly tied it down to a time period - basically, it almost feels like it could have been the '60s or '70s until a few references to presidents, Mel Gibson movies and Sarah Jesse Rafael's talk show.
The characters are pretentious, elitist snobs, but more than that they are tedious.  While Richard tries to explain that they are brilliant and special, they mostly come off as self involved.  It's basically five hundred pages of drinking.  The first two hundred pages especially seemed to drag at which point the murder of the first chapter occurs.  While the next three hundred pages also could have been trimmed, at least I could understand how Tartt was trying to show everyone's reactions and the pressure they were feeling.  In fact, it feels very Crime and Punishment, and the characters even make a joke about that - while they may be ironic about the connection, it is certainly appropriate: a man who thinks he's exceptional commits a crime and discovers he's just as average as everyone else, and these characters certainly think they are exceptional and that the rules don't apply to them.  While I can certainly see why Tartt made the choices she did in the novel, I wonder if it would have been more interesting when it was first published.  After all, I've read quite a few novels with unlikable characters but none of them left me quite so blah.  For example, I hated the characters in The Dinner but I would still love to see other people's reactions and talk about it.  Maybe The Secret History raised more discussion in 1992, but at this point, I don't think it really stands out.  This novel didn't really make me want to discuss it.  I couldn't see myself recommending this to anyone because like the characters, the novel is too tedious at times.  The main reason I read this now is because I've been seeing Tartt's new novel, The Goldfinch, everywhere, and having read this, I can safely say that I can avoid The Goldfinch, and not feel like I'm missing something.


Sophia said...

I've also had this one on my list for quite some time but was waffling enough that I keep putting it off. I think you've convinced me to let it go, although the connection to Crime and Punishment sounds intriguing.

Jen K said...

The main similarity is simply that these five people start cracking under the pressure after the murder and consume even more drugs and alcohol.

Kelly of said...

This review is so smart. I agree with you about the pacing issues. The book dragged for me and I had a really hard time finishing it.
I did read the Goldfinch though and I liked it better - there is more narrative energy to it and you don't start to get bored until you're several hundred pages in. Then, replace drinking with drugs and a really weird concluding scene that's straight out of an action movie. Still, I would try The Goldfinch, even if you didn't love this one. The writing is great in places and for the most part it's very entertaining.

Jen K said...

Thanks! I'll definitely keep in mind not judge The Goldfinch based on this one. I'll probably wait for a few months before checking it out, though. So many other books to read first!

Joy Weese Moll (@joyweesemoll) said...

You're doing great for your reading this year! Sorry this one didn't work so well for you, though.

JaneGS said...

Oh dear, this is on my list to read this year, and like you have heard wonderful things about it for years. The tedious aspect you describe has me worried.

Thanks for a great review--at least I'm going in with my eyes open :)

Jen K said...

Jane, I think it all just depends on how easily annoyed you get with overindulgent, priviledged college students. I read one reviewer that said they'd love the novel when younger but not so much at a different time in their life. Hopefully you have a better experience.

astrid said...

I feel the same about this book. I can't see what's so great about it that it became a modern classic, must read book in this century, etc etc. The characters are so snobbish and pretentious. And reading the synopsis, yep I thought this one is like a mystery book or something :D