I first became aware of Donna Tartt’s 1992 novel The Secret History when I saw it on the nightstands of moms I baby-sat for in high school. I read the description and it seemed like a very Mom’s Escape-From-Reality-Time book; sci-fi was my preferred escapist fiction, so I almost entirely forgot about The Secret History. Years passed.
And then, slowly but surely, The Secret History started poking its way back into my attention. People were tweeting and blogging about what a glorious guilty pleasure it was—it’s recently been recommended on The Awl and Rookie. So when I had a few hours to spare on a chilly night, I dared to download. What a disappointment.
Now, I should clarify that I’m not above a shameless Gothic page-turner every now and again. When I was a kid, I loved Mary Higgins Clark (try A Cry in the Night). I picked up Stephen Dobyns’s The Church of Dead Girls in an airport and, upon landing, cleared my plans for the next three hours so I could finish it. I was hoping for more of the same in The Secret History, but got it for only, maybe, 20 out of the book’s 576 pages. The rest was a long grey slog.
I get that thrills and chills aren’t what people love most about The Secret History: it’s Tartt’s caricature of a small Vermont college and its five small-Vermont-collegest students. As Nicole Cliffe observes in The Awl, “Every single character in this book has a name straight out of The White People Who Are Rich Without Having Jobs Handbook. Do you think I exaggerate? (I do.) Francis. Charles. Camilla. Henry. Bunny (real name, Edmund!) Julian!”
I appreciate Tartt’s unfiltered depiction of what she must have thought Vermont colleges were like when she was growing up in Mississippi, leaving out anything she might have learned in adulthood about real life in New England (or anywhere else), but I wish she’d had more fun with it. Once Tartt creates the setting and sketches the characters, we’re left to bathe in the tepid swill of protagonist Richard’s consciousness, stabbing at themes (class! sexuality! trust!) and character developments (is that guy a sociopath? are those two incestuous?) without ever really committing to any of them.
The dramatic tension is meant to come from (a) the progress of events in the aftermath of a seemingly accidental death and (b) the revelation of information about Richard’s morbidly cliquish new friends. In category (a), there’s a quick snap of suspense when the authorities first become involved, but after that it’s like being on a tedious 400-page road trip. Did they figure it out yet? No. Did they figure it out yet? No. Can I put the book down and pee? Fine…but make it quick, or we’ll never get there!
As for category (b), we get a series of come-to-Jesus conversations that supply unreliable information, and we don’t really know what’s going on until the book’s unimaginatively violent conclusion, when Tartt drops the answers on us like a sack of pommes frites. (What’s the least imaginative way you could bring a thriller to a violent conclusion? Yes, true—but she already used that one earlier in the book. What’s the second least imaginative way? Bingo!)
I know that sometimes you don’t need a good book, you just need a gloriously trashy read. But I say, if you’re going to go trashy, own it. Back when I was not reading The Secret History in my teen years, I was instead reading L. Ron Hubbard’s “Mission Earth” novels, which start with a plot about interplanetary warfare and somehow get from there to a graphic description of what it feels like to have an orgasm when future technology has rendered your penis super-capacious. If you’re not going to be good, you might as well be really, really bad.
In that spirit, the next time I have a dark and stormy night to kill, I’m going to try another widely-read incest-fest that I haven’t yet cracked: Flowers in the Attic.