Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Secret History: Review

Synopsis: Richard Papen arrived at Hampden College in New England and was quickly seduced by an elite group of five students, all Greek scholars, all worldly, self-assured, and, at first glance, all highly unapproachable. As Richard is drawn into their inner circle, he learns a terrifying secret that binds them to one another...a secret about an incident in the woods in the dead of night where an ancient rite was brought to brutal life...and led to a gruesome death. And that was just the beginning...

I would have finished Donna Tartt's near-600 pager, The Secret History, much sooner if my dad's medical emergency hadn't eaten up most of my reading time last week.  That's a round-about way of telling you that this is a pretty impressive page-turner for a book about a bunch of (mostly) upper-class privileged college kids who know Greek like the back of their hands and use their studies and knowledge to reenact an ancient Greek Bacchanalia.  It's quite interesting to see scholarship-dependent Richard with all the insecurities of a West Coast middle to lower-middle class student try to fit in with the "cool kids." 

The Bacchanalia is what leads to all their troubles....the "secret" of the Secret History--they push beyond the limits of morality in a way that most college students would never dream.  And I find this story to be more of an intricate examination of how various personalities handle the pressures brought on by what the group has done than a regular whodunnit kind of mystery.  Tartt handles the psychological reactions very well and it is very interesting to see who falls apart, who remains stoic, and what Richard makes of it all.  The reader also has to wonder at the motivations behind the apparent easy acceptance of Richard into the highly secretive, exclusive Greek studies group.  

Kudos to Tartt for making such an appalling story--I mean, really...what these college kids get up to and how they treat those who are their friends--into such an appealing and absorbing read.  Four stars.

Does such a thing as 'the fatal flaw,' that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn't. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.

I suppose the shock of recognition is one of the nastiest shocks of all.

For if the modern mind is whimsical and discursive, the classical mind is narrow, unhesitating, relentless. It is not a quality of intelligence that one encounters frequently these days. But though I can digress with the best of them, I am nothing in my soul if not obsessive.

One likes to think there's something in it, that old platitude amor vincit omnia. But if I've learned one thing in my short sad life, it is that that particular platitude is a lie. Love doesn't conquer everything. And whoever thinks it does is a fool.

It is easy to see things in retrospect. But I was ignorant then of everything but my own happiness, and I don’t know what else to say except that life itself seemed very magical in those days: a web of symbol, coincidence, premonition, omen. Everything, somehow, fit together; some sly and benevolent Providence was revealing itself by degrees and I felt myself trembling on the brink of a fabulous discovery, as though any morning it was all going to come together–my future, my past, the whole of my life–and I was going to sit up in bed like a thunderbolt and say oh! oh! oh!

It's funny, but thinking back on it now, I realize that this particular point in time, as I stood there blinking in the deserted hall, was the one point at which I might have chosen to do something very much different from what I actually did. But of course I didn't see this crucial moment for what it actually was; I suppose we never do. Instead, I only yawned, and shook myself from the momentary daze that had come upon me, and went on my way down the stairs.

“But how,” said Charles, who was close to tears, “how can you possibly justify cold-blooded murder?’
Henry lit a cigarette. “I prefer to think of it,” he had said, “as redistribution of matter.”  

Not quite what one expected, but once it happened one realized it couldn't be any other way.

Anything is grand if it's done on a large enough scale.

They understand not only evil, it seemed, but the extravagance of tricks with which evil presents itself as good.

And it made me feel better in some obscure way: imagining myself a hero, rushing fearlessly for the gun, instead of merely loitering in the bullet's path like the bystander which I so essentially am. (p. 544)

"Are you happy here?" I said at last.
He considered for a moment. "Not particularly," he said. "But you're not very happy where you are either." (p.559)


Man of la Book said...

Great review, glad you enjoyed it. Hope your dad's OK.


Ryan said...

I read this years and years ago, so don't remember much of it. I wonder what I would think if I read it now. I have it sitting on my shelves, so maybe it's time to dust it off.