The Short Version: Richard Papen, through an almost Dickensian set of circumstances, finds himself a junior at Hampden College in Vermont and quickly falls in with an erudite and strange group of close-knit other students. But their friendship is tested after a series of escalating dark occurrences leave one dead and the rest on shaky ground…
The Review: What can you even really say about a book like this, a book about which so much has already been said? I came to Donna Tartt’s work through her Pulitzer Prize-winner, having heard plenty of people tell me I’d love The Secret History but never quite picking it up. And each and every one of those recommendations, right down to the most recent, has built up an almost unbearable expectation of the experience of reading this book.
Thing is, it almost lives up to it.
The story begins like a gunshot across an open plain, the echo going on for more than half the book. And it’s a gripping beginning: we’re informed, quite simply, that a guy named Bunny is dead and that his friends are responsible. This tension, of watching the proverbial noose tighten around Bunny’s neck, is what drives the large majority of the novel. We flash back to a little history of Richard, our narrator, and then dive into his junior year at Hampden College – where he ends up, through a weird set of circumstances, giving up his normal classes to take what is essentially a small-scale salon series taught by the charismatic and brilliant Julian Morrow.
I was reminded, not surprisingly, of my time at school. I don’t think anybody who went to a liberal arts college will not feel some euphoric recall here – especially if you were a real nerd. I wasn’t even; I didn’t take the honors seminars at BC, which were structured somewhat like Julian’s classes (although without the focus on Greek and Latin). But we can all think of that professor who was more than a teacher, they were an inspiration, they were a friend – even though that line is one that, at the end of the day, doesn’t actually go both ways. And I think that’s even more true of professors like Julian, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
As somewhat ridiculous as the series of events that get Richard into Julian’s hand-picked class nearly halfway through the semester might be, they’re not impossible and anyway it doesn’t matter: these characters are fascinating. Just like Richard, we want to spend time with them. Bunny, loud and large and bordering on obnoxious; Henry, brilliant and unapproachable and all the more desirable for it; the twins Camilla and Charles, beautiful and tragic like Fitzgeralds; and Francis, almost European in his affectations. They’re a close-knit group, unmistakably intelligent and for a mind like Richard’s, why would you want anything else? He does not care that he’s missing the ‘college experience’ and why would you, when you’re jetting off to a house in the woods with your friends every weekend?
And all the while, the noose grows tighter.
We discover, along with Richard, the realities of the shady hints dropped in the background – strange conversations about bed linens, late-night phone calls, unexpected silences, etc – and it’s a pretty big whopper of a concept: that the gang (well, four of them, excluding Bunny and Richard) have managed to actually whip themselves into a Dionysian frenzy and, in that resulting state, killed a man. Tore him to bits, really. It’s a fascinating concept and just the sort of thing that college students attempt to get up to (the well-intentioned attempts to recreate something dangerous, not so much the murder part) – and Tartt sells it, dispelling any hint of the reader’s rational mind wanting to say “uh, but.” But I think she gets away with it because the reader also knows that this is not the end – in fact, it’s only really now the beginning. Without giving too much away for the handful of people who haven’t read this (no judgement, I was clearly one of you until just a short while ago – although be warned, SPOILERS are probable from here on out), things progress and get dangerous pretty fast and then suddenly, at the turning point of the book, we are caught up to the introduction. Bunny, old sock, is dead.
And for a while, the book continues on in its delightful cold-fire way – out of inertia, perhaps. The immediate aftermath of the murder is exactly what you’d expect it to be and as things start to go wrong in their carefully calculated plan, the tension continues to hover at a high level. It’s only the question that has changed: it’s no longer “Why does Bunny die?” but “Will they get caught?”
But this question cannot sustain the entire remainder of the book and as Bunny’s funeral approaches, the book begins to sag under its own weight. Those characters once found so interesting have curdled, soured, and there’s not a redeeming one of them in the whole lot. I pegged Henry as a viper from moment one – it’s hard not to, in this post-Bret Easton Ellis world. (side note: did you know that Ellis and Tartt dated for a while in college? and that they shared notes on this and Less Than Zero? Makes SO much sense but also I’m floored.) But the development of the other relationships is painful to watch, then downright irritating. Their guilt consumes them but they all go to such melodramatic extents that it is hard to enjoy any of their presences anymore. They all become downright unlikeable by the end – and not because they are guilty of at least one murder, some of them two.
The end (okay, SPOILERS happening for real now) does make an attempt to recapture some of the Hitchcockian menace of the first act, with everyone concerned that Henry might now turn on them. But are they? It becomes a confusing haze of mental and physical illness in those final 150-or-so pages, with pretty much everybody suffering some kind of mental breakdown as well as doping themselves up on booze and drugs. I was reminded, during it, of Richard’s ridiculous and terrible winter in the plot-device-apartment of the hippie: it seemed to stretch on far longer than it actually did, in the context of the novel. And frankly, I was in danger of no longer caring.
The moment that made me realize this was a flawed book came during one of many brief (but potent, I hear you cry) conversations between Richard and one of the other characters during this hazy period of near-insanity. It couldn’t, of course, be any other than Henry. Henry, who has taken things remarkably in stride (since the funeral anyway) is outside cleaning bugs off his plants and Richard stops by. Henry basically asks if Richard really feels things for other people, a question that understandably flusters Richard, and Henry says (and I’m compressing for effect): “Yeah, neither do I.” The page might as well have a flashing neon sign that says “he’s a sociopath! They ALL are!”
And the thing is, Tartt can’t sustain our interest in them once she’s sent them all down this rabbit hole. Richard has remained a cipher at best, almost like an invention to serve the plot and observe how it plays out, while the gang all become the worst possible versions of themselves. Incest? Sure, why not. Attempts at suicide? Go for it. I found myself hating all of them in a way that I hadn’t hated them for their cold-blooded murder.
But there is a redemptive moment at the end, in the Greek style (because how else could it end). Julian, having discovered the truth (through a comedy of errors that, again, stretches plausibility), has fled and left his charges high and dry and that betrayal – worse, for them, than if he’d turned them in – kicks off the true disintegration of this group. And the final act of violence is a shock, although it’s also the only way the story could’ve ended and I think that realization (“oh, of course, that was what had to happen”) undercuts the power of the moment in hindsight.
And the wrap-up, the narration by Richard of “well, here’s what happened to everybody” leaves such an unsatisfying taste in your mouth that it’s only in the final words that you remember just how fucking captivated you were by Tartt for most of the novel: she delivers a final brief dialogue that just crushes it, really crushes it. And so you’re left remembering all of the really good moments of this novel and the way it sucks you in and makes you want to do nothing else but read it.
But, then, perhaps that demand to be read is actually the reason for my fatigue: had I had the chance to sit down and read it over the course of, say, two days instead of a week, I might never have felt said fatigue and I would’ve just burned through.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. For all the problems I have with the second half of the book, Tartt has an undeniable way with words. Of course, we all already knew this – The Goldfinch made believers of anybody who hadn’t yet read this book (and The Little Friend remains an oddly overlooked middle novel at this point, about which no one seems to really say anything, but that may be more due to the potency of this and The Goldfinch than any flaws on its part). The seductive and intense nature of her prose makes for a gripping reading experience and she lays her traps with a skill that would make Hitchcock proud. But Hitch (who is, I think, the ideal filmmaker to adapt this story) also knew how to keep the tension going even after the first turn of the screw, whereas Tartt loses it a bit in the aftermath of Bunny’s death. She gets her groove back a bit but the last third or so of the novel retains a sort of druggy haze and by the time we get out of it, nobody’s very interesting anymore – they’re not just unlikeable, they’re no longer quite interesting. But even then, she doesn’t lose us all the way: she’s far too talented, even so early on, to slip up like that. And so it’s not a perfect novel; just a damn good one.