The Secret History

By: Donna Tartt
Published by: Vintage Contemporaries, 1992

My friend Nadine lent me this book about a year ago, and urged me to read it.

I started it, and had every good intention, and then it got put aside because I had to read something else to review. And it wasn't demanding my attention. Then another, and another, and another book got in the way.

Finally, nearly a year later, I was going on vacation, and would have several hours on the plane each way, so it seemed like an ideal time to start again.

What took me so long?

The book is one of those wonderful discoveries you want to make again and again. While I admit that it's slow to get started, once you're at about page 60 it becomes impossible to put down. You're drawn in, enveloped, cocooned. In short, you become just like our hero, Richard Papen, who is adopted into a strange little clique of classical scholars at Hampden College, and is literally seduced into evil.

The evil isn't deliberate, which makes it all the more frightening - but I get ahead of myself.

Richard is a boy from lower middle-class Plano, CA. His family are distasteful to him: a kind of classless bohemian group of whom he is profoundly ashamed, and who don't understand his intellectual's fascination with Greek literature and history. Determinedly, he finds a way to manage a scholarship to Hampden College, with which he has fallen in love. There, he reinvents his past, and longs to become a real part of the small group of preppy friends that comprise the Classical Studies students, and acolytes to charismatic professor, Julian Morrow.

His acceptance, or quasi-acceptance, is, as Tartt describes it, voluptuous, rich, intoxicating.

Held just slightly out of reach, becoming part of the Greek studies program is all the more desirable; the students (including Richard) can chatter to one another in a "secret" language that few can understand; their professor teaches them that they literally do enter a "secret" society when they become adept at Greek. And he invites them into this society: "I hope we're ready to leave the phenomenal world," he says, "and enter into the sublime?"

The Greeks, so far as we know, practiced mystery, or cult religions. Among the more notorious was the Dionysian cult of the Maenads, the female followers of Dionysus. Using intoxicants, dance, song, and sexuality, this cult would engage in periodic frenzied rites, which, according to legend, frequently resulted in not only orgiastic nights, but in some cases, blood sacrifices that entailed ripping the victim (typically male) limb from limb.

And this is the nature of the evil into which Richard is drawn.

The little group of friends is comprised of the twins, Camilla and Charles: sweet, attractive, and clever; Bunny: a poseur, both intellectually and socially, a rich boy in habits if not in reality; Francis, also privileged, gay, and reserved; and Henry, the authentically rich, brilliant, preppy young man who leads them. Idle, smart, snobby, privileged, and prone to excesses (in alcohol, study habits, and isolation from the "real" world), the group (minus Richard) apparently kill a local while testing out a Bacchanalian rite. And as Bunny both deteriorates emotionally, and at the same time begins to cash in on his knowledge of this event (holding Henry up for ever greater payoffs of money, gifts, travel, and high living), the plan to kill Bunny seems inevitable.

The truth is, there isn't much plot to the book. I've pretty well outlined it for you here. What holds you to the narrative - demands that you turn one more page, even in the wee hours of the morning - is your fascination with the characters, the rich detail of the writing, the sheer physicality of the prose.

Discussing the book, my friend and I concluded that if Tartt did not live this adventure in toto, then certainly she knew these people, or people like them, and was part of a group of entwined, intellectual friends similar to these. Her intimate knowledge of their habits, the speech patterns, the hangovers and clever, self-involved conversations, is simply too real to have been entirely invented in her imagination - or perhaps I sell her short.

Either way, while I have to admit I get tired of F. Scott Fitzgerald's bored and boring different rich, these characters, and their situation, are much more seductive - and one of the reasons we keep turning pages is that we know, somewhere deep inside, that we would love to be part of this group, even for a few days or weeks.


Jessica said…
this is a blast from the past for me, I read this a good eak ten years ago. I loved it, I kept turning the pages because I was dying to see if Richard would get with Camilla and to see what secrets the group had.

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