BOOK: SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt

06 PANORAMIC RUINS

Some books you love, some you hate and some leave you sitting on the fence, confused and ambivalent about whether you like them. The Secret History by Donna Tartt sits on the fence.

This writer’s forte is descriptions that are extremely powerful. However, because they are usually so long, they drag the reader down into deep verbal chasms, linguistic quagmires. How deep? To where? When will it stop? When first encountered, they seem to be syntax exercises created to entertain the reader. Soon they become tiresome and burdensome, bearing down heavily on the attention and concentration of the reader. Unfortunately, they become tedious abuses through overuse and unwarranted length. Tartt abuses the readers with these verbal assaults all too frequently.

01 mortar board w diploma

Paragraph development in this narrative is superb demonstrating Tartt’s  power with prose but one soon tires of her constant memory prods: she is a college graduate; she studied ancient tongues; she learned a lot, and she remembers most of what she learned. She browbeats the reader with these constant reminders as to how erudite she is.

Arguably, F. Scott Fitzgerald is the ideal model for a writer to emulate and imitate and the setting for this novel is definitely Fitzgeraldian in flavour but it lacks his literary impact, his creative power. She copies The Great Gatsby in many ways, similar moods, similar atmosphere, and similar feelings of flagrancy, immorality and self-abuse. Although copying Fitzgerald may be justifiable because of this author’s fame and renown but the imitation diminishes her own novel. It detracts from the primary intent of her novel which is to recount an intriguing tale of college students wrapped up in a web of criminal skulduggery in a simple, descriptive and original way.

07a hitchcockTartt is inspired by the cinematographic master of developing tension and suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. She too hides actual details of incidents while verbally while verbally dancing around them. In this way, she too inspires your imagination to generate mental images much worse in their cerebral creation than their actual reality. Hitchcock was unrivalled at inducing this free play of the imagination and it resulted in imagined scenes far gorier or scarier than he could ever have created on film. Besides suspense, Tartt beautifully a canvas of many emotions, a spectrum of ennui, tedium, romance, anticipation and expectation, like ocean waves washing over a sandy beach.

 Tartt is entertaining but becomes tedious when she recalls too many incidents and experiences of her own life incorporating them everywhere: the books she has read, the languages she has studied, the restaurant dinners she has consumed along with their accompanying drinks. These reminiscences emerge as “awkward insertions” used to demonstrate and confirm how well educated and experienced she is. These too frequent recollections are very easy points to dislike in the novel.dancing around them. In this way, she too inspires your imagination to generate mental images much worse in their cerebral creation than their actual reality.

02 greek warriorTartt’s descriptive capability is simultaneously her strength and her weakness, a double-edged sword. When these descriptions go on and on, they become boring and cause the reader attention to wane; when more appropriate in length, they affirm her powerful capacity for evoking certain moods, particular atmospheres and meticulously detailed recollections. Judging when and how to end a lengthy description is a tough call, one which even Tartt finds challenging.

What I liked:

  • The complexity of her flowery descriptions, like literary gems strewn about the narrative’s canvas
  • Very successful development of tension increasing reader curiosity and anticipation
  • The long-winded descriptions often successfully develop an atmosphere of authenticity

What I disliked:

  • Awkward split infinitives
  • Frequent long-winded descriptions of debatable impact
  • Jarring insertions of foreign language quotes
  • Unexpected bolding of words, letters or classic titles with no clear intent
  • Confusing mixture of the factual and mystical worlds

Would I recommend this book to friends?

Yes and no.

Yes: I would recommend the book to friends who enjoy nostalgia, who revel in memories of their own college days, who attended a college similar to Hampden College and who are of WASP ethnicity. These friends would be very pleased at revisiting their own college days as they read about those described in the book. They would enjoy Tartt’s reminiscing about language phrases she recalls from her studies, about her professors with their idiosyncrasies and even the campus and college residence environment. These things would remind these friends of their own studies, their own academic challenges and their own memorable teachers and they would feel all warm and fuzzy revisiting their own academic memories.

No: I would not recommend this book to friends because the book is a ponderous, heavy read. Details abound unnecessarily, descriptions lack clear definition and practical limit. Too often, the narrative ploughs off the road into a muddy field of cumbersome detail and unrestrained description. Its unusual writing style as listed in my ‘dislikes’ above can be distracting and jarring. The bold formatting of the foreign phrases, book titles and certain words is disconcerting and jarring disrupting the flow of the story. Additionally, Tartt far too often carries on a description longer than she should, a setting, an incident or an episode overwhelms the reader with endless detail; the visit to Bunny’s parents for the funeral goes on too much, too long, and unnecessarily so.

Would I read the book again?

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I do not think so. The book reminds me of an authentic Chinese buffet, an endless display of familiar and unfamiliar foods artfully presented but ultimately lacking in lasting and memorable taste. Though I feel full after dining, it is not a satisfying fullness, more a feeling of being “stuffed with nothing.” Worse still, soon after I am hungry again, yearning for a better meal, a more satisfying one. Certainly, for me, The Secret History cannot be my last supper.

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