Thursday, May 14, 2015

Completed: The Secret History

[Just in case there is anyone out there besides Jenny reading this post and has not already seen our Spoiler Alert in the margin over there --->

... this post is totally and irrevocably spoiler-y. I'm giving it aaaaaallll away. You have been warned.]

Dear Jenny,

As we have discussed in the comments on my Preview post, I had a weird start to reading this book because for the first 100 pages or so, I kept thinking, "Wait -- I've read this before!" but after that, it was all new to me, so I must have started it at some point and put it down. I don't remember that at all.

You say you read it in college -- now I am wondering if I picked up a copy then and read the first 100 pages at around that same time? That would explain my complete blank -- my college days were spent reading nothing but books for school. So if I somehow found a copy of this on a break or something... maybe?

Oh, well. Once I got past that "Wait, have I read this already?" problem, the game was on! Like The Goldfinch, this book is thoroughly engrossing (Obviously -- I just tore through it in a few days.) It opens with the information that this group of friends killed one of their own (Bunny) and I thought, "Whoa. Um... spoiler much?" but have faith, cause Tartt has plenty more up her sleeve to keep you flipping pages as the story unfolds.

The one thing the immediate knowledge of Bunny's death did was keep me from getting very "attached" to him. Later attempts to make me feel something more for Bunny -- and there were many -- did not work. I know he's going to die. And that his friends killed him, sooo... yeah. I'm never going to get to know or love Bunny. And maybe that was the point -- maybe that helps us identify better with the basically cold-blooded way that the group decides to do him in. But I do wonder if it might have been a more dramatic reveal if I had gotten to like or love Bunny more before he was killed.

After we get the "Yup, we killed our friend" opener, roughly the first third of the book (the part I had previously read and forgotten) is spent introducing us to the characters -- Henry, Francis, Charles, Camilla, Bunny, and our narrator, Richard. The first 5 are in some kind of creepy Greek Studies program together (creepy because it's so super-exclusive that the students in the program only study with a single professor, Julian, during their entire college career) (Also... really? No.) Julian generally does not accept new students (Richard is a transfer) but ends up taking Richard into the program. I was a little bored by this part (probably why I put it down the first time...?) but then...

The middle of the book hits its stride as there is some mysterious business going on in the group that Richard doesn't know anything about -- he wakes up to strange conversations, notices weird hints that the others are clearly dropping to one another, etc. You definitely get the idea that there is something else building up besides Bunny's death. And Tartt delivers -- it turns out that these chuckleheads decided to have some sort of out-of-their-minds old-school Bacchanal in the woods and whoops! In their frenzy, they ended up dismembering a farmer. Like, a man. A human. They murdered someone. And tore him apart with their bare hands.

Bunny wasn't with them, but he ends up finding out (sheesh, I cannot remember how now and I just finished this book 2 DAYS ago -- ugh. Well, in my defense, I've been sick in bed. So it's a blur.) (Also, I just cannot remember book plots. I just can't.) Anyhoo... once he finds out, he ends up being a bit of a loose cannon -- he kind of goes off the rails (as one would -- cause, you know, it's murder) and it seems like he might give them up. So in order to shut him up, they decide to shove him off of a cliff near where he goes walking.

BTW, as engrossed as I was, I did find some parts to be so unbelievable that they pulled me out of the story. The tiny Greek program with one professor and no new students (Really? Then... how does the program continue when someone graduates?) was one example. And this thing where Bunny takes these long rugged walks along a cliff that is unprotected and dangerous enough that one could fall to one's death was another -- nothing about Bunny's character suggests ruggedness throughout the book.

In fact, here is our introduction to him:
"... a sloppy blond boy, rosy-cheeked and gum-chewing, with a relentlessly cheery demeanor and his fists thrust deep in the pockets of his knee-sprung trousers. He wore the same jacket every day, a shapeless brown tweed that was frayed at the elbows and short in the sleeves, and his sandy hair was parted on the left, so a long forelock fell over one bespectacled eye. Bunny Corcoran was his name, Bunny being somehow short for Edmund. His voice was loud and honking, and carried in the dining halls." [18]
Does that sound like a kid who takes wilderness hikes up along big ol' dangerous cliffs by himself? I don't know -- it just doesn't come together for me.

Back to the story. Well, Bunny gets the heave-ho about 2/3 of the way through the book, so there's a whole, "What the heck else is going to happen?" sensation. There are some scenes that I think are supposed to be tense where we are supposed to be worried about whether or not our heroes are going to get caught, but I felt like the intro to the book, where the narrator was ruminating on Bunny's death, didn't seem to come from behind bars, so that felt oddly false.

But wait for it, cause Tartt's gonna hit you with another whammy -- basically, the group is on the verge of a psychotic break (cause, hey -- they've killed some people!) and... icky... the twin brother (Charles) and sister (Camilla) have been sexually involved with one another (yet another plot point that just does. not. ring. true. Nononono -- They're siblings! This is not Flowers in the Attic, people!) and Charles is getting drunk and abusive and Camilla and Henry are in love, so Henry puts her up in a hotel so she can hide from Charles there, but Charles finds her and he brings a gun and a fight breaks out and... Richard (narrator) gets shot (wounded, but not killed) and then, to wrap up all of the loose ends, Henry kills himself. Boom.

So there ya have it. It's no wonder this book was the "big book" when it was out -- it was all pretty nutso and page-turneriffic. But I still have problems with some of the basic fact-checking kind of flaws... even something simple like this: on the very first page, the narrator describes the search for and discovery of Bunny's body: "when the thaw finally came, the state troopers and the FBI and the searchers from the town all saw that they had been walking back and forth over his body until the snow above it was packed down like ice." [3] which is a nice, dramatic image, right? But then... in the story itself, they were actually looking for him a couple of miles from where his body was, and it was a woman playing fetch with her dog who happened upon him, nowhere near anywhere they were searching. So that just seemed kind of sloppy to me. Maybe Tartt was making a commentary on memories? They're not as clear as we think they are? Not sure, but it was a little bothersome. (Not nearly as flawed as The Goldfinch, though... so there's that!)

In other news, you mentioned the cover in our comments on the Preview post, so of course... I looked that up.

The jacket, as you recalled, was fancy. The image was the same as that on my paperback (the dude to the right there) but, according to this article, it was "wrapped not in a regular paper dust jacket, but a clear acetate sheath on which the title, blurb and author photograph are printed in purple." Sounds like maybe Tartt wasn't on board with the idea at first, but it was a big hit. However, the designer now says that "It’s kind of a practical disaster" because the acetate is so easily marred (which I have found myself with the acetate cover on the book Cover).

The designer was Chip Kidd and he's another big name in book covers -- he works with Peter Mendelsund and he was interviewed in that movie I linked to in my Cover post. And he's done a ton of cool book covers. Seriously -- check that link. This guy is prolific -- he's a bookcover-designing superstar.

On a personal note, I have inadvertently read three novels in a row set in small, academic communities (this one, On Beauty, and Winger) and I am now feeling a might claustrophobic. Going to have to choose my next book with that in mind.

Holy cow! It's mid-May and I have just wrapped up my 5th book of the year! Can it be? Whoa. Well, don't worry -- I'll screw that up and fall behind somehow. Hahahaha.



  1. Wow! I sort of want to reread this! I remember the wild bacchanal part, but not really any more details---certainly NOT the Flowers-in-the-attic twist. Ugh.

    I wonder if I still have my copy? I'll have to go check out my shelves later. If I did keep it, it would be because it was so beautiful as a book. But I'm such an asshole, I probably chucked it.

    PS. I laughed out lout when you called them chuckleheads. That never gets old. Lol

  2. By the way, speaking of Chip Kidd -- he's got a book for kids who are interested in graphic design called "Go: A Kidd's Guide to Graphic Design" (it's a pun!)

    In the last week or so, it's popped up on my radar a few times and, although I have not read it myself, people say that's it's great. So if you know any kids who might be interested in this topic, they may want to check it out.