I'm not leaving these air conditioned rooms this week without a good reason (burritos, lunch with a friend, guilt-tripping gym class teacher). Since our ancient air conditioners' noise keeps me awake at night anyway, this is the ideal time to settle in with a long novel I can't put down. So I'm rereading The Secret History, a bestseller published in 1992. Donna Tartt began her first novel in her sophomore year at Bennington College; I gather that she finished it here in Boston several years later, while she worked at Avenue Victor Hugo, the late-lamented secondhand bookstore on Newbury Street. I spent a lot of hours in that wonderful, dusty shop; I even bought this book there. If only I'd taken more pains to befriend the sales staff....
The story is told from the point of view of Richard Papen, a bright, working-class college kid from California who manages to transfer to an artsy Vermont college (just like Bennington). Because he has studied ancient Greek, he is invited to join a clique of five seemingly wealthy and erudite classics majors. They take all of their classes alone together with one brilliant and charismatic instructor. Fascinated but intimidated by his sophisticated new friends, Richard fabricates a glamorous past for himself, recasting his parents as failed Hollywood movie-stars instead of a gas-station owner and a frumpy housewife.
Soon, bad things happen. Very bad things. You'll hear about one of them on the first page but I'm not going to ruin the surprise. This is not a mystery so much as a crime story. But Tartt's writing is so evocative and insightful that you will be caught up in Richards emotions and psyche before you know what hit you.
The first time I read The Secret History, soon after its release, I was visiting my parents during a heat wave. I remember waking up each morning in my childhood bedroom, feeling absolutely terrible, as if I had committed some unspeakable crime that nobody had discovered — yet. (I swear I didn't feel terrible because I was visiting my parents. Honest! Okayyy... maybe a little.)
A dark, guilty-conscience cloud hovered over me through most of the book's 500 pages. I was relieved to finish it and return to my dull, blameless life. But what an amazing spell it cast! I suppose it resonated for me because I, too, had been a bright, working-class kid who landed at a similarly elite college and had a lot of catching up to do, socially and culturally. But the similarities end there.
The story mentions Marlborough Street and Exeter Street, both very near I was living back then. I remember looking out of my bay window and wondering which of the nearby windows belonged to the 10-room apartment Tartt had chosen for the final home of one her most minor characters — a feral cat. Shortly after I finished the book, I heard her give a reading at Waterstone's (... a moment of silence for another great, late bookstore), around the corner from my apartment. I remember seeing her greet friends in the audience that reminded me of some of her characters. Either I was too shy to ask a question or there were too many people asking her questions — I no longer remember why I didn't find out more about her Back Bay locations. But I was thrilled to discover that a few pages of this book, toward the end, took place near my doorstep.
From the New York Times review:
How best to describe Donna Tartt's enthralling first novel? Imagine the plot of Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment" crossed with the story of Euripides' "Bacchae" set against the backdrop of Bret Easton Ellis's "Rules of Attraction" and told in the elegant, ruminative voice of Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited." The product, surprisingly enough, isn't a derivative jumble, but a remarkably powerful novel that seems sure to win a lengthy stay on the best-seller lists.That review has a lot of spoilers, so I'll end it there. It IS a remarkable novel, powerful enough to send chills down your spine even when it isn't describing, in bleak, snow-blind detail, the long semester break that Richard spent nearly freezing to death in an unheated factory with a hole in the roof. He was too poor and proud to stay elsewhere and didn't know what New England winters are like.
I know what they're like. And for some crazy reason, I can't wait. But in the meantime, I've got The Secret History. And I'm going back to it right now.