The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I never wanted to read The Secret History, not after attempting to a few years ago. It was difficult to get into, uninteresting at the time. Had it not been for The Goldfinch I still wouldn’t have read it, and now I can easily say that Donna Tartt is one of the best authors I have read.

The Secret History blew my mind. Well paced, the intricacy of the characters allows you to effortlessly fall into the mind of Richard, the protagonist. There was nothing I disliked about this book.

‘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….’ Synopsis from GoodReads.

I didn’t want to review The Secret History, but it’s swimming about my head demanding attention.

As with each of Tartt’s novels, it was a labour of love. I cannot help but think of her method as the literary equivalent to ageing wine. This is the second of her novels I have read, having read The Goldfinch in May. Though much longer, I became caught in the fast pace of The Goldfinch. In comparison, a shorter novel, The Secret History is slower, but I love it more for it.

I imagine it’s partly due to my desire to attend an East coast American graduate school, but Richard Papen was easy to slip into. His actions, his reactions, I never questioned. Not, that is, while reading. Richard’s quest to fit in with the elitist Classical group selectively taught by the eccentric Julian, is fascinating in it’s realism. Anyone who has ever wanted to be part of a seemingly ‘cooler’ group, whatever the genre, will understand Richard’s need to prove himself.

Henry, Francis, Camilla, Charles and Bunny are (outwardly) what you would expect from well bred, affluent young intellectuals. Richard, in contrast, is a west coast bumpkin, uncouth and desperate to remove the poor undertones of his existence. Once accepted, though not integrated, by the group Richard falls into a world of conservative opulence these five upper class individuals occupy. Tartt manages to create these dysfunctional characters while avoiding clichés. It makes for beautiful reading.

Slowly the novel moves from Richard’s attempts to mould to the idiosyncrasies of the group, to murder. You are never able to hate Henry, Francis, Camilla or Charles for their actions, as Richard never does. He is too honoured by their inclusion, clouded by his admiration and love for them all, to allow negative judgement. You begin to agree with Henry, that Bunny must be stopped to protect the group, because that is how Richard feels. He enjoys protecting them. Had Bunny narrated even part of the story I know I would have looked on Henry’s stoicism, or Charles’ alcoholism, in a very different light.

Julian, in being as selective and pretentious, fosters a sense of superiority in the group. One that puts them above the law, as they parallel the classical cultures they are studying. Julian sets them up to fail, encouraging them to assimilate the classical codes of honour they study. They are given privilege and fail to see the honour of it, they accept it as the norm, as a right. Eventually all of them fail to meet the expectation; even Richard who will end up the most successful, is unhappy.

The Secret History is a tale told by a perpetual outsider. Emotionally separated from his parents, never quite part of the close-nit Classics group. He internalises, never completely connecting to anything. Henry discloses to Richard only what he wants Richard to know, and in this way Richard and Bunny had more in common than they realised. Both, no matter how Henry cared for them, were pawns in his plan for safety. And they loved him regardless. Henry is the point of power, the centre of their universe.

As each of the characters repress their guilt, the physical manifestations begin to show. Charles turns to drink, Francis suffers from sever anxiety, and Henry’s headaches intensify. Finally erupting in a dramatic, though unsurprising, turn of events – the group is irrevocably fractured.

By the end of the novel even I felt guilty, for hating Bunny, for accepting murder. Tartt’s writing is that wonderful, you become part of the story, part of her luscious prose. I cannot recommend reading The Secret History enough!

Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I had encountered Tartt prior to The Goldfinch a few years ago when I struggled with – and gave up on – The Secret History. Many people tell me it is worth revisiting, but I have never felt that rush to fight through the first 100 or so pages.

At 771 pages long The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is the longest book I have read since Harry Potter (or one of the Song of Ice and Fire series, maybe?). The length didn’t perturb me, it doesn’t take long for Tartt’s protagonist Theodore Decker to wrench you into his mind. So visceral was my experience I felt as if Theo existed, that he was telling me his story personally. A talent that is a rare to encounter in literature. It was as if I could have put the book down and called him – were I to know his number – and he would be there in New York to answer the phone.

the goldfinchIt begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.

As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love-and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.” Synopsis from GoodReads.

Tartt’s rich prose allow the reader to drop into her world with ease, to swim amongst its inhabitants. As with any Tartt novel, The Goldfinch is a multi-layered and deeply researched novel. Elements such as intellectualism, psychology and the deprecation of the human spirit are laced through the text. This isn’t a book that will tell you that life is great, and nothing bad will ever happen to you. If anything, it tells us what we already know; life is shit and shit things happen, but we need to take it for what it is, and enjoy it despite its hardships.

“That life – whatever else it is – is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.”

Throughout the novel – almost in imitation of Theo – I kept thinking, ‘if only [this] had been different.’ Picking at each life changing moment to see where his path could have forked in the road. But ultimately, such thoughts are irrelevant, as his life cannot be reversed and nothing can be changed. I was at once Theo contemplating life’s events, and his childhood friend Boris taking life for what it is. It’s not just Theo who climbs out of these pages, it’s New York and it’s residents – all of the personalities Theo connects with. Each is a creation of itself, there is nothing two-dimensional about this novel.

While the plot is set around The Goldfinch, a painting by Carel Fabritius, I found myself becoming resentful of its position in the novel, as a tool to drive the story. I found my attention wavering at the more extravagant plot twists, certain events went on too long or seemed unfathomable in such a realistic reinvention of my own world. Without spoiling, I could have done without the events in Amsterdam. I enjoyed Tartt’s writing best when Theo was attempting to make his way through the sort of life most of us live, navigating the banality. This didn’t – as I began to fear – lead to a chocolate box ending.

Without the more adventurous elements of the novel The Goldfinch would have read as if these events could have happened to anyone. That is the sort of realism I enjoy, a retrospective on the moments of life we all experience. Yet, with the sudden changes came a ravenous desire to read which may not have been present otherwise. I thoroughly adored this book and I feel there is more meaning I have still to glean. Have you read it too? What did you think?

 “To try and make some meaning out of all this seems unbelievably quaint. Maybe I only see a pattern because I’ve been staring too long. But then again, to paraphrase Boris, maybe I see a pattern because it’s there.”

Review: The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

‘They’re saying that you’re about to open a bookshop. That shows you’re ready to chance some unlikely things.’

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald is set in 1960 (published 1978), in retrospect quite a prosperous time for bookselling in comparison to today. Thus far Fitzgerald’s shorter stories (Offshore) have delighted me more than her longer (The Beginning of Spring) and The Bookshop was one I have had my eye on for a few months. While only 156 pages, it took me longer than expected to read. I had to stop over and over to underline segments where Fitzgerald depicted subjects in ways I had always thought of them, but never vocalised.

thebookshop“In 1959 Florence Green, a kindhearted widow with a small inheritance, risks everything to open a bookshop – the only bookshop – in the seaside town of Hardborough. By making a success of a business so impractical, she invites the hostility of the town’s less prosperous shopkeepers. By daring to enlarge her neighbors’ lives, she crosses Mrs. Gamart, the local arts doyenne. Florence’s warehouse leaks, her cellar seeps, and the shop is apparently haunted. Only too late does she begin to suspect the truth: a town that lacks a bookshop isn’t always a town that wants one.” Synopsis from GoodReads.

Fitzgerald has a magnificent talent of depicting the humdrum level of everyday life in ways that have never felt more poignant or interesting. The fictional Hardborough felt so completely real, its residence those you know you could meet in any similar small community.

All Florence Green wanted was open a bookshop, and all the village wanted was get their own way. It would not be a great spoiler to reveal that Florence does not keep her bookshop. It is the events of the year that make you shift uncomfortably in your seat, make you want to reach in and give the characters a good shake. Yet, you know you would handle Florence’s challenges in the same manner. The loss of the shop felt inevitable, and I was far more interested in the series of events that would lead to it’s demise.

‘For more than eight years of half a lifetime she had lived at Hardborough on the very small amount of money her late husband had left her and had recently come to wonder whether she hadn’t a duty to make it clear to herself, and possibly to others, that she existed in her own right.’

Florence has few allegiances and each of her detractors appear resistant to the introduction of a bookshop not due to a dislike of books, but a feeling of change of which they have no control or influence. They all have their own ideas on where and how it should be run, which Florence handles with grace. She flies against adversity, making as little fuss as possible. I got the impression that if she had shouted her rights louder, she would have failed all the sooner.

‘Her courage, after all, was only a determination to survive.’

The Bookshop is a delightful novella, Fitzgerald captures each character with perfection, from the stoic Florence to the serious 10 year old, Christine. Even though a mere slice of Hardborough life is experienced you will feel as if you have learnt as much about village life as any epic could teach you.