Once Upon A Time in Vermont…
I have not done much reading from my Lecito List for sometime and I really did not want to give it up. After much self motivation and several introspective conversation with my bookish soul, I finally returned to the List and started the New Year with one of the book from the list that I had never read – The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I was not particularly keen on the book – it was set in present age in an all American exclusive college with a bunch of rich kids and a murder in between – a cross pollination between The Class by Eric Segal and I Know What You Did Last Summer (Yes! I am aware that this was published way before I Know What You Did!) However resolution had been taken and I plodded on!
The book opens with the prologue where the narrator, Richard Pappen tells the reader how he and 4 others, killed Bunny, one of their friends. Wikipedia tells me that this was what critic A.O. Scott called a “a murder mystery in reverse.”. We then go back and learn of Richard Pappen , a lonely lower middle class Californian boy, who dreamed of getting away from the humdrum and non intellectual and non conducive atmosphere of his home, which he shared with his gas station owning father and clerk mother. In a quest to get away from them and their society, he finally applies to Hampden College in Vermont. Once selected he applies for continuing his studies for Ancient Greek; however he is turned down by the enigmatic Professor Julian Morrow who teaches the course, because Morrow claims his class is already full , which Richard discovers to consist of 5 students only. He starts following the students and soon begins to asses each one’s personality – scholarly and unapproachable Henry Winter, the charming and ethereal twin, Charles and Camilla Macaulay, the stylist Francis Abernathy and the group joker Edmond Corcoran, aka Bunny. A chance encounter at the library enables him to interact with the twins, Henry and Bunny, post which he again approaches Julian Marrow and is accepted in the class. Richard initially feels isolated from the group and to hide is low middle class background, he invents a colorful past of Hollywood parents, cocktail parties and similar high life. However, he does not actually become part of 5 until he is asked by Camilla to join them at Francis’s country home, which acts as the retreat and getaway for the 5. He soon becomes part of what seems to be an exclusive group but finds the inner dynamics of the group mystifying, especially the friendship between Henry and Bunny. Henry seems to be always bailing Bunny out and constantly paying for the latter. Infact, Henry barely seems to tolerate Bunny, but yet they plan to go to Italy for the summer together. After the winter break, Richard detects a new tension and distance between the Bunny and himself and the other four. 4 days before the start of the term. he discovers, by accident that Henry, Francis and the twins are planning to leave for Argentina. Bewildered and confused and hurt, he is surprised and relived to find all of them in the class when the semester starts. Henry and Francis later disclose all to Richard as to what had transpired, involving him as well themselves and the 3 others into a series of actions and events, that would spell tragedy for them all.
This is NOT a happy book, but it is a great book, very much in lines of one the core themes of the novels, Greek tragedy. The writing is harsh, bleak, unrelenting and yet as a reader, you keep going, because the power of the words and the strong plotline. The descriptions mostly describing unhappy events, walking through heavy snowfall into a broken roofed home, the lonely childhood of a scholarly child in a low income and culturally deprived surroundings etc are so strong and potent, that not only can you visualize the images, but they are seared into you. The constant battle of the desolate physical climate and the constant darkness that crept into the soul of the characters, just took my breathe away! The loneliness and the confusing morality standards the protagonists, which I still cannot understand at all (Black is black and white is white), but was nevertheless unwillingly empathizing with, is a testimony to the brilliance of Ms. Tartt. The loss of idealism left me along with everybody in the book, heartbroken! The characters are all very charismatic, compelling and convincingly drawn and they blend together as a cohesive unit and at the same time stand independent of each other. The plot while not a mystery of who has done it, is more of why it was done and is fast paced and keeps you as reader gripped though you know what will happen in the end. The only time I felt that Ms. Tartt went OTT was in last 100 pages bringing in the whole angle between the twins and Henry; I believe the end would have still come the way she planned, but this tangle, in my view kind of lowered the high literary standards and brought it down. It was like going from high brow to plebeian in a matter of pages; there is nothing wrong with either types of literature, but they should not cut into each other’s genre! Also the constant mention of alcohol and drugs got me high just by reading! I have been in a University campus for a long time; from my undergraduate days to my M.Phil and I do understand that alcohol and drugs are a constant way of life, especially in a liberal university like mine or the Hampden college of the book. However the constant drinking even before the crisis hit the protagonist’s lives, made me swear of alcohol for a while!
Its a difficult book to like and put down as a all time favorite for me; but it did take my breathe away and I am still reeling from its fiery prose, therefore without liking liking the book, I really liked the book. Go figure!