Wednesday, May 14, 2014

"Secret History" Donna Tartt (novel review)

After winning the Pulitzer for her novel "The Goldfinch" in 2014, it seems that everyone is talking about Donna Tartt. An ol' Miss sorority girl, she found her way to Bennington where she earned kudos in classics and literary parlance. Born in 1963, she's heralded as a rare genius and literary star.

Secret History is her first book, published in 1992, about a group of students who are at the center of a couple of murders. The "mystery in reverse" reveals the killers in the opening pages and unwinds from there.

And unwind, it does! 500 plus pages of unwinding narrative and dialogue that touches on about every detail of every minute in the lives of these classic scholars and their professor of Greek. A good editor (that would be me)(hey, a joke!) could have a heyday cutting this prose back to something more manageable. But that would be taking away, I think, the very thing that makes Tartt's work so addictive. If you've ever known a real "talker," someone who could just talk about the weather, the price of eggs and the gossip on the street and make it interesting, then you'll understand the gift this writer has with words. You end up chewing these endless sentences for all the nuggets of charm and fantasy that she packs into them. It's nuanced, it's subtle, but it's strong. And man, it's endless.

I was very amused by an article in The Guardian called "10 Things We Love About Secret History." The list is as follows:

  • 1. It starts with a murder.
  • 2. It is in love with Ancient Greece
  • 3. It has all the best elements of the campus novel
  • 4. It has a classic lonely narrator
  • 5. It is full of quotations
  • 6. It has a charasmatic master of ceremonies (that would be the professor)
  • 7. It is obsessed with beauty
  • 8. It believes in fate
  • 9. It is possessed by Dionysos
  • 10. It lets you in on secrets

  • I would agree with perhaps half of this list. I felt that the quotations and translations of Greek and obsession with classic beauty and Dionysos were all overdone, and reminded me of some of the poetry of Louise Gluck which I have also found exclusive, erudite and meant to be inaccessible. i.e. Showing off. It would be in the character of these students to be over the top, so I suppose it's legit, but still, one rolls one's eyes. Of course, if you are a scholar yourself, in an ivory tower, this would be right up your alley.

    For me, the denouement was not totally satisfying. I wanted much more from the character of the Professor,(she let him peter out) and the conversational wind-up of each of the student's lives, as they played out in time, seemed really anticlimatic. Sort of like a newspaper story, just the facts, ma'am.

    In fact, that would be my strongest objection of this book. There didn't seem to be much "heart" in it. It was a product of a keen wordsmith and a lively mental gymnast, but what was missing for me was the passion, the Greek pathos for emotion. There was plenty of ethos - character and logos - logic, but I was missing the heart of the matter and also the "something" to tuck away in myself, as I always do with a really good book, and take with me.

    Would I read another book of hers? You bet. She's young, and she's definitely in the game. Stephen King calls her our own Dickens! It takes her 10 years to write a book. (She's still young!) I've just started "The Goldfinch" at 800 pages! so I'll be back.


    1. I think she over writes. And her latest is impossibly over rated. I remember a scene in Amadeus when the Royal patron says about Mozart, "Too many notes." Tartt uses too many words. (But that's just me and one other reader friend.)

      1. You can add me to that list! Wayyyy too many words. (I'm halfway thru Goldfinch, and remain with that opinion)