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Tuesday, March 01, 2011

"The Secret History"

Finally finished this book, though I actually read it pretty quickly, considering the length. I messed up the timing - the book club doesn't meet for 2 weeks (I thought it would take longer).

I didn't hate it, I'm even glad I read it, but I'm super disappointed. I really don't understand what Donna Tartt was going for. She could have explored really interesting issues of loyalty and guilt, and so on, but instead, I now know what it's like to be a college student in Vermont, which I could care less about. Way, way too much about the weather, and what they ate, and the drugs they took, and the parties they went to, and even what they wore. If I was 25 years old and recently finished college, I might like this book a lot more. But I'm a middle-aged woman who is far removed from those halcyon days. I got a little annoyed reading about all the stuff they did besides attend class and learn anything - I certainly took my college years a lot more seriously than these folks did, probably because I was paying for it myself!

I was a bit afraid that the book would be over my head - scenes of brilliant students sitting around discussing Big Ideas. But there was hardly any of that. I would have actually enjoyed more of this - I think it would have been more interesting than reading about the snow and the cold and the pork roast they had at the inn in town.

There was hardly any of the famous Julian either. Toward the end, Richard talks about how Julian was a substitute father for him, etc, etc, and Henry says he loved Julian more than anyone else in the world, but you didn't really get that from the book - he was in a few scenes in the beginning and then he disappeared for about 300 pages. I thought she did a poor job of showing how important Julian was to the students, even, maybe especially, Henry, so that what happens at the end resonates a lot less than it should. 

Another complaint about the book was the odd melodramatic elements that she threw in almost randomly, especially the sexual relationship between Charles and Camilla, which I thought was completely unnecessary (and substantially raised the "ick" factor of the book!) I literally said aloud "really?!" when I read that part. I also thought Francis being gay (and his interrupted seduction of Richard) felt like sort of a plot device and not really organic to his character, and not treated very respectfully either - like it was his character's flaw, which I think is really lazy writing.

I also thought the female characters were shockingly one-dimensional, considering the author is a woman.  Camilla is never really given a personality (though we certainly know she's BEAUTIFUL), Marion is almost a plot device, and the lively Judy is a subject of ridicule, despite her generous and tolerant nature (or maybe beause of it).

I read an interview with Donna Tartt where she says she spent 10 years, off and on, writing this book. With that big an investment, it should have been a lot better. I don't even really know what the title means. In 500+ pages, she couldn't manage to make that clear??? I think the lengthy writing time may be part of why the book feels episodic and why so many sections seem like anecdotes shoe-horned into the narrative. I thought many times while I was reading that she needed a better editor. There was a good book in there somewhere, but it was drowned in excessive exposition that did not serve the reading experience well at all.
I would have to say that the only parts I really *enjoyed* reading were Chapter 6 and the Epilogue, because those were the only sections where she moved the plot forward with any real momentum. Except for the bonding that happened between Richard and Henry toward the end of it, she could have (and should have) eliminated Chapter 3 almost completely.

As an aside: people ask me why I like YA fiction, and this book is a strong argument - because it's engaging! In the middle of Book II, I was really yearning for some kick-ass girl to come riding in on a horse and archery these idiots for me. Just sayin'. Not that adult fiction can't be engaging - I've read hundreds of books, many of them terrific, and very few were written for teens. But this just epitomizes what's wrong with "famous books" - this book spent 13 weeks on the NY Times Bestseller List.  I guess a lot of people who buy books feel nostalgic for their college days.  It's certainly not because this book is such a satisfying read.  It's described as a "page-turner," which is definitely not my experience of it.  If I hadn't been reading it for a book club, I would have set it down less than half-way through.  She already tells you the end at the beginning, so it's not even like you have to skip ahead to see how things come out.  In fact, doing that (telling the end at the beginning) puts more pressure on the author to make the journey really interesting, since you're not reading to find out what happens!

Immediately after I finished this book, I read an article about the Turing Test and artificial intelligence. Early on, the author poses "The Question" - what makes us human? As a psychologist, I always thought the answer to that question was, we're the only creatures who feel shame. I found myself thinking about the characters in The Secret History almost the whole time I was reading the article. Did they really feel shame? I don't know. But I know that Donna Tartt didn't spend nearly as much time considering that as I would have expected and certainly as much as I *wanted* in her book.  Despite it's length, there just wasn't enough "there" there!

ADDENDUM 3/30/11

Came across this quote quite by accident, but I think it really helps me understand this damn book:

If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility. -Henry Wadsworth Longfellow



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