the secret history, by donna tartt

August 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history—state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter; the college closed, the dye factory in Hampden shut down, people coming from New Hampshire, upstate New York, as far away as Boston.

It is difficult to believe that Henry’s modest plan could have worked so well despite these unforeseen events. We hadn’t intended to hide the body where it couldn’t be found. In fact, we hadn’t hidden it at all but had simply left it where it fell in hopes that some luckless passer-by would stumble over it before anyone even noticed he was missing. This was a tale that told itself simply and well: the loose rocks, the body at the bottom of the ravine with a clean break in the neck, and the muddy skidmarks of dug-in heels pointing the way down; a hiking accident, no more, no less, and it might have been left at that, at quiet tears and a small funeral, had it not been for the snow that fell that night; it covered him without a trace, and ten days later, 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.”

Not that you can’t already tell, but this book is really fucking good at being what it sets out to be. And I know you want to know what happens next.

The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, is a tale of death, claustrophobia, and sexual obsession. At the start of the school year, newly enrolled freshman Richard Papen falls in with an elite group of five students, all classics scholars, all globe-trotting sophisticates, and their charismatic, mezmorizing professor. The college is small and select. Discussion sections are conducted in wood-paneled inner sanctums. Everyone is unearthly attractive. In other words, reading this book is like stepping into a J. Crew ad where multiple gruesome murders have been committed and all the beautiful people know it and the make-up artists know it and the photographer knows it but no one is willing to say a thing. Meanwhile, all the models are primping in the mirror and trying to return their thoughts to the important things in life, namely, plaid or polyester? Except that raggedy piece of carpet right there. Yes, yes, that one. What is this odd dark spatter…?

From page one, you know how the victim will die, and by whose hands. The suspense that this knowledge generates cannot be overpraised.

There are naysayers out there that sneer at the book’s popularity. And it’s true that The Secret History doesn’t really speak to me on a deep, deep level. But honestly, who needs life-changing philosophizing when you have J. CREW MODELS, engaged in sickening debauchery, committing random acts of philosophy, and all of it narrated in the sort of fattening, crème-smooth prose that mama always told you to lay off on before it busted the snaps of your pants?


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