The Secret History

Here is the story of how this book came to be in my hand: In 2002 Donna Tartt published her second novel entitled The Little Friend. I was living in Westerville, Ohio approximately fifteen or twenty minutes outside of Columbus, or as some might say (gasp) a suburb. I didn’t really have much business living there. I was in school and wanted to do school things like drink too much and stumble home at three o’clock in the morning (never fear I had many of those nights later) instead of entrenchment in domesticity (I had to mow the lawn). But I was living, for the third year, with a friend and roommate who got the place. The point being this was the reason I was frequenting the Westerville Public Library which is, bar none, one of the best libraries I have ever come into contact with. Everything was available at the tip of one’s fingers. I picked up The Little Friend because I liked the cover (despite what proverbs tell us we all do it) and because the plot piqued my interest. When I found myself going to camp soon after, not having finished the tome, I relented, went to Barnes & Noble and purchased the thing in hardback, which I never do. I wish that I could tell you that this lead immediately to a love affair with Tartt’s prose, but that wouldn’t be accurate. The freshly purchased glossy hardcover sat in my things at camp for two months before it traveled back to Ohio with me and sat some more. I have never finished that book. But I did mention the book to my mother who in turn told me that Ms. Tartt had written a very good, and often lauded, first novel called The Secret History. It sounded interesting so when I found myself, soon after, in an adorable bookstore inNew York City I picked it up. And there it sat on my bookshelf for nine years.

I can not even imagine why it took me so long to read this book. I can’t believe I haven’t had friends who mentioned it or teachers who brought it up or something. I picked it up about a week and a half ago and have been enraptured ever since. I suppose, it would be easy for someone to hate this book. It could be seen as pretentious, melodramatic, and filled with references to things most people haven’t casually read. But considering the first person narration from a character ensconced in this world I think the writing is spot on. I’ll get to plot, shall I? This is a tale, essentially, about a murder and how it affects the people who commit it. That is not a spoiler, that’s a fact, the murder and the victim are laid out plainly in the prologue. But then, of course, we have to move backwards.

Richard Papen, a bored out of place Californian boy from a blue collar family, comes to Hampden College (based, very obviously, on Bennington College) after transferring in his third year of college. For two years he’d been studying ancient Greek because, quite plainly, it fit in his schedule. But he likes it and is good at it so it’s no surprise he wants to continue once reaching Hampden. He quickly learns that the professor, a Julian Morrow, accepts only a handful of students, five at present, and is uninterested in taking on a new one. Morrow’s students soon become apparent because of their moneyed sense of entitlement and exclusivity from the rest of the school. They don’t dress the same as everyone else, they don’t speak the same as everyone else, and they circle each other in a tight web that other’s don’t even bother trying to penetrate. But of course, because things must progress, Richard helps them with a problem and they, who turn out to be much more friendly and welcoming than one would expect, happily talk to Julian and soon Richard’s dropping half his classes and entering into a somewhat absurd situation of taking most of his classes from Julian like an ancient scholar to mentor. He also finds himself with a new group of friends.

First there is Henry Winter. Henry’s intensely intelligent, almost to a fault. He prefers ancient tomes that need to be translated to anything else, including most company. He knows an outrageous number of languages, some dead, and has a chilly formal exterior that’s difficult to penetrate. He’s definitely the most enigmatic of the group, mostly because he’s always a few steps ahead of everyone. Including the narrator. He’s from a wealthy family without much affection and seems to have led a relatively isolated life. He has a penchant for wearing dark suits on a constant basis and carrying around an umbrella at all times. There’s also a chance he’s a magnificently sadistic bastard.

Then there’s Francis Abernathy. I can imagine that Francis is probably a lot of people’s favorite character. He’s thin and angular with apparently the reddest red hair that’s ever been. He wears fabulous suits and neckties with an enormous black great coat that’s easy to visualize billowing behind him as he stalks across campus. He’s also fond of wearing around a pince-nez, which is just incandescently awesome. Towards the beginning we’re given hints, then outwardly told, that he’s gay but the subject is evidently never broached by any of the group. He was brought up by his grandparents in a role more reminiscent of brother, rather than son, to his young mother inBostonwhere he was treated to the most extravagant of lifestyles. He’s nervous, hyperactive and completely endearing.

Next come the twins; Charles and Camilla Macaulay. One can only hope this was written before the Prince of Wales had his infamous affair. They’re fromVirginiawhere they were orphaned as children, a fact Richard envies, and raised by their grandparents. They aren’t rich like their friends but they get by in a simple elegant manor, sharing an apartment in town and having modest Sunday dinners for the group. While everyone else is wearing dramatic black the twins favor whites and light colors making them stand out against their friends (somehow I imagine Charles in constant tennis sweaters) angelically with their blonde hair. Camilla’s described as medievally beautiful and Charles as fairly good looking himself. To Richard they are the two who are immediately likeable, and worth protecting. Like twins often are, at first they are almost interchangeable, the same person, appearing the same with the same mannerisms. It’s only with time, and a few hundred pages, that they separate and we begin to realize that they don’t look all that much alike at all.

Finally, there’s Edmund Corcoran, known to all as Bunny. It’s interesting, given the fact that from the first page we know that he’s murdered by his friends, that I was able to connect with him as much as I did. Bunny’s from Connecticut, born into a typical American family of boys and prestige. His family has an outrageous house, sends their children to the best schools, and put on a very good show for a  crew that don’t actually have any money. Bunny’s shipped off to Hampden with a bad case of dyslexia, a braying laugh, and no pocket money. It’s both good and bad for him when he is assigned Henry Winter as a roommate. Bunny’s significantly less intelligent than the rest of the characters, a fact that garners snide comments and some annoyance from his friends. He’s the odd man out, and probably always has been, but through Richard’s eyes we see a different story. Bunny’s obnoxious, bigoted, and knows how to pick at someone where it hurts, but through the first fourth of the book I found him pretty likeable. Fact is, he’s sort of hilarious. His laugh, which he employs liberally, is described as a hee hawing and his voice compared to Thurston Howell III from Gilligan’s Island. He reads Fu Manchu novels and listens to John Philip Sousa marches at full volume in the middle of the night. He has a girlfriend, Marion, who’s a real woman, studying for a real woman’s job (teaching, naturally) and that’s the way that Bunny likes it. Like all his friends he speaks in a way that’s ridiculously old fashioned employing phrases such as “I say, old man” which may annoy other people but strikes me as the most delightful of phrases uttered by people pretending their from a more sophisticated time. It’s only later that we start to see more of Bunny’s bad side, and it’s so offensive and cruel that the reader’s not all that sorry to see him go.

[I will be commencing with spoilers from now on so if you don’t wish to know it’s probably time to look away, I will alert you once more when the spoilers have finished.]

Now, this tale is woven for us in first person. We see everything through Richard’s eyes. So we don’t get all the facts right up front, but rather discover things the way he discovered them. For this sort of novel, it’s ideal narration.

Soon after falling in with his new friends they start inviting him up to Francis’s country house, belonging to an aunt we never see. They spend idyllic weekends there reading, boating, and drinking more than humans should drink. It’s the sort of thing that keeps groups close while shutting everyone else out. And things carry on in this fashion until it gets cold out and Hampden College shuts down for several months. Charles and Camilla return to Virginia, Francis to Boston then New York, and Bunny and Henry take a trip to Italy. Richard, much poorer than he lets on, needs a job so he stays in Hampden to continue his work study and rents a room from a hippy in North Hampden that doesn’t have any heat and, in fact, has a hole in the roof. May I remind you this is Northern Vermont? It’s cold. And after several weeks of this he catches pneumonia and is rescued by Henry, who has returned home early, leaving Bunny behind in Italy. Richard spends the rest of the break at Henry’s apartment in town, ingratiating himself even more fully into the lives of this group.

But when everyone else comes back it’s clear that things have changed. Henry’s distant, Francis is cagey, and the twins are nowhere to be found. Not to mention that Bunny has become obnoxious, and is wearing some very nice new clothes. When Richard has to return to Henry’s for a forgotten book he discovers flight information to Argentina. Clearly something’s up. Finally, Henry tells him; throughout fall term the five of them had been attempting to have a Bacchanal. They’d gone into the woods wearing bed sheets trying to reach the frenzied celebration where Dionysius would appear. They’d tried drink, but fallen asleep, they’re tried a tea of laurel leaves, and they’d tried fasting. Nothing worked. So on their last available day they’d fasted for three days and set up the conditions as well as they could, leaving the somewhat less serious Bunny behind. Evidentially, it worked. They were half crazed, running through the woods with a Greek God, and when they came to a local farmer was dead. Henry had bashed in his head with his bare hands and they were all covered in blood. They left the body and returned home, only to find Bunny lying in wait. Of course they cooked up a story about hitting a deer, but once Bunny saw the news he knew what was up. Then he’d taken the opportunity in Italy to go through Henry’s personal belongings and found the proof in Henry’s journal. He’d been blackmailing them ever since.

But then it soon becomes apparent that old Bun’s not holding it together all that well. He’s demanding exorbitant things like clothes, money, chores and pretty soon they won’t have the funds to pay him. Plus he’s becoming more belligerent. He makes comments publicly about touchy subjects, like Francis’s homosexuality, religion, Charles’ drinking, and even (polarizing his only possible ally) Richard’s obvious lies about his upbringing. Soon they all hate him and when he breaks down and tells Richard about the murder (which Bunny does not know Richard already knows about) it’s clear that it’s time for him to go.

They wait for him on a path where he frequently walks and push him into the ravine.

But the characters soon learn that nothing comes as easily as all that, especially not murder. Not only do they have to contend with the local police, a prolonged manhunt, the FBI, an overly grieving student body, and Bunny’s parents but they all have their own private reactions to what they’ve done.

Henry’s stoic complacency is pretty terrifying, actually. It becomes more and more clear that it’s possible he’s some sort of diabolical mastermind. It’s downright chilling when he tells Richard, without emotion, that he felt dead inside until he killed that man. And while not as overtly terrifying Camilla has a certain ice queen quality. Unlike her brother she doesn’t seem to have any remorse over what they’ve done, and remains cool and confident in her role as the only female in a group full of men who want her. While they all drink far too much Charles hardly comes up for air. After he becomes central to the investigation, when it’s he and Bunny’s old school friend, Cloke, who have to report Bun missing, Charles starts hitting the bottle pretty hard. By the end he’s become abusive towards Camilla, been admitted to the hospital with severe dehydration and bronchitis, and fallen apart pretty spectacularly. So of course he’s terrified that Henry’s got it in for him next. He might not be wrong. Francis starts retreating into hypochondria and panic attacks, while Richard starts self medicating with stolen pills from Bunny’s high-strung mother.

I suppose the underlying plot of this book is learning to deal with committing murder, but it’s really much more than that. This is obviously a character driven story as we watch this group exist together in harmony, then in intrigue and paranoia, and then eventually, and inevitably, fall apart.

[End of spoilers.]

I have had four favorite books since 2007 when I read Les Misérables and it shot to the top of my favorites list. I’ve been looking for the fifth for years and this is probably it. Yes, so I like stories about overly intelligent people who have a hard time functioning against the rest of the society. Still, I really can’t recommend it enough.

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About Lindsay

I have a C'est Moi page, you should probably just read that.
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