I have an issue with Donna Tartt.
The Secret History, her debut novel and the second novel of hers I have read, is everything I thought it would be: 500+ pages of overly crafted scenes, obscene amounts of references, underdeveloped characters and storylines that go nowhere. Some of these characteristics are not bad in of themselves. Tartt’s extreme attention to detail makes every scene vivid and alive. Her references to literature, music, art, even fashion, show that she is incredibly intelligent and has a keen eye for influence. It is in the last two (poor character development and aimless plots) that she begins to lose her credibility as a writer, to me. Every scene is finely nuanced, but the nuances mean absolutely nothing if the scene goes nowhere. The characters may be brooding or charming or violent, but these become superficial when there is not enough insight into the character’s relationships or personal experience. Quite frankly, one can’t be expected to give a shit about Tartt’s writing when her books become more masturbatory than masterful.
This is not to say I didn’t enjoy The Secret History. Unlike my experience with The Goldfinch, I actually looked forward to picking up The Secret History. Especially during the first half of the novel, there was a level of intrigue and suspense that enticed me. It wasn’t quite the same miserable prison, until it was.
So, let’s get to the meat of the thing. This WILL contain spoilers. You have a warning.
The Secret History follows a group of six eccentric liberal-arts college students who become murderers and ultimately self-destruct. If that sounds melodramatic, well, it is. Very much so. The main character and first-person narrator, Richard Papen, is a bored Californian suburbanite who wanders through life with no real meaning and no real friends. He pursues a practical career in medicine until he decides, like most college-aged kids with no real idea of what they want to do with life, that the Classics are what interest him. He finds his “calling” at Hampden College in Vermont, and his middle-class parents are more than happy to see him go (cue the poor character relationship development). Upon arriving in Vermont, he discovers that the Classics program is highly exclusive, and highly discouraged. The Classics department is made up of Julian Morrow, the only professor and of course, a mysterious, intriguing older gentleman with a dignified sense of taste and old-world sensibilities. He only has five students, who are all very much archetypes of the sort of students you would expect to take up the study of dead language texts at a liberal-arts college in the 90s. They chain smoke and drink like lushes; they dress in high-end designers but wear things like a pince-nez or floppy straw hats. They come from money and say things like “Look here,” or “By the way, love that jacket, old man,” like something out of The Great Gatsby. Richard is taken by them and ultimately convinces Julian to accept him into the program.
The impression the reader gets of the other students as they are first seen walking across the lawn together by Richard, who of course finds them to be magnificent, speaks of the superficiality of their creator. Henry, the incredibly rich, socially awkward, melancholic teacher’s pet; Camilla and Charles, a set of twins with golden, angelic good looks and grace; Francis, the fiery redhead with a distinct black cloak, pince-nez, and flamboyant tendencies; and Bunny, a strong, fashionable young man with floppy blond hair and a lively presence. As the semester moves forward, Richard is brought into the fold. In typical Tartt fashion, the group partakes in a lifestyle that is not relatable to her readers. They attend school maybe three days a week. They spend weekends at Francis’ aunt’s country summer home, playing euchre or floating aimlessly in a row-boat for hours on end. They have sophisticated dinner parties with an abundance of scotch and cigarettes. But no matter how much Richard is around, he suspects something strange is amok: bumps in the night, periods of no contact with the others, whispers and strange looks. He senses he is still an outsider. The only other person who appears to be a bit out of the loop is Bunny. But Bunny is insufferable, and this becomes important in the story later on. Bunny is a loudmouth, judgmental and rude. He mooches off of the group even though he claims to be from money. He needles everyone about their insecurities, but holds himself to the highest esteem. As the behavior of the group becomes more unusual, Richard comes to find out a horrible truth: Charles, Camilla, Henry and Francis have committed murder (not in conventional, typical murder fashion, either.) And Bunny knows the truth.
The following events could have happened rather quickly, making for a shocking climax and swift conclusion. Tartt would not have it that way. What follows is the long, drawn-out, histrionic fallout. After being threatened numerous times by Bunny to expose the group and Richard ultimately piecing together the clues, the secrets threaten to ruin everyone. To protect the group (or is it his own self-interests?) Henry orchestrates Bunny’s demise (this is not so much a spoiler because you actually learn of this event within the first page of the book). Now keep in mind, this book is 559 pages long and both the first murder and Bunny’s murder occur before page 270. So what the hell was the rest of the book about? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Sure, there is an investigation after Bunny goes missing for a week. The police come, the FBI comes, and the group collectively shits itself for several weeks before Bunny’s funeral (a funeral which takes up almost a whopping 40 pages alone). The group turns on each other, Richard turns to drugs, Charles to drink, Francis to chain-smoking, Henry disappears frequently, and Camilla teeters between indifference and utter devastation. But again, this is happening 200 pages after the crimes. And so the rest is all filler. Most of it is Richard’s pointless ramblings about everything happening from day-to-day, down to every minute detail. The rest of the group take turns in and out of hospitals, getting arrested, fighting, smoking, and drinking. Tartt drones on with no destination.
The most glaring issue to me with this book, and The Goldfinch, is that Tartt’s main characters have no sense of purpose, which makes it impossible for the reader to care. They have no substance. Like Theo in The Goldfinch, Richard has zero motivation for life, has no interesting qualities or observations, and they end up passive in their own story, taking up drugs and wasting their days. It is aggravating. It is lazy. Why tell the story from their perspective? Richard was such a non factor in almost everything that happened in The Secret History, he could be entirely removed from the story and it would be exactly the same. Both he and Theo relied on the other characters to make them relevant and interesting.
Another huge problem with Tartt is that she gets to choose what Richard “remembers”. So while he can tell you, in excruciating detail, about the time Camilla cut her foot on a piece of glass at the summer home, he cannot tell you what was said between Julian and Henry when Julian discovers that the group is responsible for Bunny’s death. Even though Richard is present for that moment, a most crucial, suspenseful turning point, the conversation seems to elude him. Tartt worms her way out of writing any sort of pivotal dialogue by suddenly giving Richard amnesia, a side effect of the shock and trauma of committing a murder. Tartt would rather write bloated prose supplemented with an arsenal of sophisticated references than give her story the structure and substance it so desperately needs. It’s a cop-out.
Would I recommend The Secret History, or any Tartt book, for that matter? Oddly enough, I probably would. She is well-acclaimed for a reason, even if I tend to strongly disagree with the praise. I know several people who loved The Goldfinch and would probably enjoy The Secret History. I always like a good thriller and this, at times, had potential to be a great thrilling read. I enjoyed it to an extent but my previous experience with Tartt has left me immensely critical of her work, with some issues too glaring to ignore. We become better readers and critical thinkers when we read what we are critical of and understand why we feel so. When we refuse to read anything by a certain author, or in a particular genre, simply because of one bad experience, we are limiting ourselves. How can we know for sure that we truly disagree if we never give that author another chance? I respect Tartt’s talent and knowledge, but can say with great certainty now that I am not a fan of the approach she takes with storytelling. I know because despite my misgivings, I wanted to fall in love with her writing. Unfortunately, Tartt and I must now go our separate ways.