I read The Secret History by Donna Tartt over the course of ten days. For the first hundred pages I found it easy to put down, but then easy to pick up again. I chose it because of Twitter discussions and buzz about the author’s third novel, The Goldfinch. (The Secret History was her debut in 1992.)
So, yes, that means she’s had three books in twenty years or so. This is an account of an evening with Donna Tartt, which I found interesting. I admire a writer who carves her own path in the face of pressure to produce shorter books at a faster rate. Obviously, this isn’t the route every author should take or want to take, but good for her for doing what works for her. (Her books are long.)
I didn’t know much about The Secret History going in, but had been told it was very well written. Which it absolutely was. Reading TSH reminded me of reading in my teens and twenties, when I often picked up non-genre books I knew little about and didn’t know what I was in for or where the author was going. I enjoyed being thrown back into those memories. These days I read genre more often than not, and I either have a clear idea of the book from reviews, or I know the author’s work, so I again I have a clear idea of what I’m in for. I certainly don’t always want to go in blind, but I had rather forgotten what it was like and found it invigorating. Being a reader who wants different things at different times, I’m sure I’ll soon pick up a book that delivers exactly what I’m expecting. And it’s nice to have that choice.
The Secret History might be called a psychological thriller. (That’s on the book’s back cover.) It’s set in a college in Vermont that to me felt a bit unreal. I don’t know if that is really what small colleges are like or if Tartt was going for a somewhat alternate-reality college. Either way is fine with me. The book is told in first person, the narrator is not always dependable though I wouldn’t call him unreliable exactly—even if surprising nuggets of information come out at different times. He gets involved with a small coterie of students studying entirely under one professor (is this even possible? though I should quickly add it felt real in terms of the book itself) and he loses what moral compass he may have had.
The narrator isn’t particularly likable, nor are the other main characters in the books. This is usually a problem for me, if I’m not enjoying the fictional people I’m spending time with, but Tartt has the ability to write these guys in a way that is quite captivating. You don’t end up rooting for them, not at all, but you certainly wonder what they are going to do next.
I had to laugh at myself, because as well as remembering what it felt like to start a book with little idea of what I was in for, I also remember my laser-like focus on any sexual or romantic descriptions, even slowing down to reread a section, always wanting a bit more. (This before I discovered I was a romance reader and writer.) Here too, I did this, and wanted more; I was tracking any suggestions of romantic and sexual feelings when that was in no way the focus. And followed no romance trajectory at all, I might add.
I’ve tried to write around the actual plot of the book, keeping spoilers away from this writeup, which is clearly not much of a review. I’m not sure I found the ending completely satisfying, but it was close, and until that point, it sure kept me turning the pages. I will try another of Tartt’s, perhaps The Goldfinch—I gather her second book, The Little Friend, is considered less successful—but not right away.
I have only so much patience for reading about a bunch of characters I don’t really like who make troubling (to say the least) moral choices, but while Gone Girl didn’t ultimately do much for me, in the end, this one resonated.