For September, my book club chose Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I had heard wonderful things about her most recent bestseller, The Goldfinch, so I was excited to read something by her. Plus it sounded interesting: a good, old-fashioned examination of good and evil, morality and ethics through the lens of a tight-nit group of friends at an elite New England college who all swarm around an enigmatic Classics professor with a healthy dose of mystery tossed in. You know the story. Sounds intriguing, right?
I hated it. HATED it. Though it was published in 1992, the story felt like such a big rip-off on every other book or film on the genre, most especially Dead Poet’s Society, and not in a good way. The novel traces Richard’s path to his “dream” college (dream mainly because the school with its venerable history, ivy-covered buildings, and gentle New England snobbery is everything his generic California suburban life with healthy doses of parental abuse and indifference is not) and his attempt to fit in with the revered group of misfits who take Prof. Julian Morrow’s Greek and classics degree. Never quite fully on the inside, Richard wavers between loyalty, a desire to fit in, acceptance, and ultimately fear as his new “friends” cautiously let him into their morally murky world. Actions of questionable ethics abound, culminating in Bunny’s murder (don’t worry, the book starts with it), and explores the various characters’ psychological reactions as the police inch closer to figuring out “whodunnit”. While seemingly like having a healthy dose of murder mystery might set it apart, though, the novel doesn’t add anything to the genre. Maybe if I had read it in 1992 I would feel differently, but I’ll be honest. I really don’t care about another story about another outsider at an elite New England school trying to fit in with his richer peers and pretending his terrible new friends aren’t terrible until he’s forced to confront how truly terrible they actually are.
That’s the problem here. I don’t care and I don’t want to care. There is nothing about these characters that is anything more interesting than an archetype. The group is unofficially led by erudite antiquarian Henry, who just wants to translate his ancient texts as test ancient morality’s limits. Brooding Francis is a sort-of-closeted, sort-of-not basket of anxiety who stalks campus in his long, dark trench coat. The seemingly perfect twins Camilla and Charles hide something more sinister, and “Bunny” is a college age Robin Leach of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. And all of them are boring or obnoxious.
Besides, it is exhausting to read about their misadventures, which is a term that the group would balk at as being far too pedestrian to accurately describe their activities. The book moves very slowly until the murder occurs, and then it proceeds in the most boring drug and alcohol fueled haze until the discovery of the body. It picks up somewhat after that, but I never could tell if it was because things actually got interesting or because the end was in sight. The blurb on the back discusses the relativity of morality and the fine line between good and evil, and if the book, particularly the midsection, actually dealt with any of these themes, it might have has some interest. But it just follows Richard trying to find more sleeping pills, other drugs, or enough alcohol so that he won’t dream about Bunny’s corpse an being alternately worried about and pissed off at the others. Yawn.
The most interesting character in the book for me was the most woefully underdeveloped one. Julian, their Greek professor, is absolutely that professor stereotype until he’s not. The evil glimpsed in him toward the end of the book would have been a massively interesting structure from which to explore the afore mentioned themes. Unfortunately Julian wanders through the text noncommittally, rendering that flash of something a tantalizing taste of what could have been.
Perhaps I’m being harsh or callous, but I just feel like there was an opportunity missed here. But let me be very clear. I know people who loved this book. LOVE it. And that’s good. My review is just my opinion, and for every negative impression, there are most likely an equal number of positive impressions. Donna Tartt is undeniably a gifted writer, particularly when crafting exquisitely detailed and precise descriptions, born out by the fact that she won the 2014 Pulitzer for The Goldfinch. So maybe this just isn’t my Donna Tartt book. Maybe I’ll like another one better. In any event, The Secret History was not my cup of tea. But it is undeniable a well-written book and worth a read.