Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Truly deserving of the accolade a modern classic, Donna Tartt’s novel is a remarkable achievement—both compelling and elegant, dramatic and playful. Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and forever, and they discover how hard it can be to truly live and how easy it is to kill.

My take: 3 stars ***SPOILERS***
I have come and gone on this one. I disliked it, loved it, and finally, upon the last page, wonder if I should dislike it again.

Let me explain.

While I read to around 200 pages, I was struck by the similarities in this book and the move from 1989, "The Dead Poet's Society" (DPS). I even went as far to chart the characters in each:


Todd = newbie
Neil = son of overbearing father
Knox = calm
Richard = overachiever
Gerald/Charlie = best friends
Charlie also described as a beatnik

The Secret History, published in 1992:

Todd = Richard = Newbie
Neil = ?
Knox = Francis = Calm
Richard = Henry = Overachiever
Gerard/Charlie = Charlie and Camilla = Best Friends
Charlie = Bunny = Beatnik

See what I mean?

Then, I kept reading and the story blossomed for me. The characters were richly drawn, and I was completely involved in the story. Meeting Bunny's family gave me a new understanding of his outlook on life, and the reasons behind his parasitic nature. Seeing Camilla and Charles spiral apart from one another was also interesting. Henry progressed from benevolent to malevolent, which I loved. Francis also started coming apart at the seams. Richard, as the narrator, was probably the least-known character to me.

However, I then come to the end. I warned of spoilers, so if you don't want the main one, STOP READING NOW.

When Henry kills himself, I was right back to DPS. Remember when Neil's father forces him to leave his beloved school and go to a military academy? And all because he wants to play the lead in "A Midsummer Night's Dream"? Neil shoots himself that very night, in his father's study. Ouch.

I know there are more differences than similarities, but the similarities are so striking that they are hard for me to discount.

"A Separate Peace" by John Knowles also deals with life among boys at a prestigious prep school. There is also a death. However, this is where the similarities end. Knowles' book stands on its own. Which is not quite what I can say about Tarrt's first novel.

All-in-all, the book was very well-written, prompting me to make numerous notes and highlights. If the path of the book were not so close to DPS, it would have been a solid 4 looks. However, the best I can do right now is 3.


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