Saturday, January 08, 2011

A modern Greek tale

I recently finished reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I'd heard wonderful things about the book, so I was excited to finally get my hands on a copy.

The plot: Young Richard Papen seems to hate his life in Plano, Texas. On a whim, he applies to a small college in Vermont - Hampden. He is thrilled when he is accepted and seizes the opportunity for escape. Once he arrives at Hampden, he falls in with a close-knit group of five classics students, and their academic and social worlds intertwine. However, a series of bloody events take their toll on the small group of friends, barreling them towards a shocking, and almost inescapable, conclusion.

The book reminded me in some ways of A.S. Byatt's Possession in that it read a bit like a modern classic. Because the students study the classics, and the tale is set at a college, the reader already finds him/herself in the academic frame of mind. From the very beginning of the book, the author admits that a murder has taken place. But the reader continues from page to page not to find out if this is indeed so, but to discover how the story will unfold. Such a device reminds me of Greek tragedy. The audience knew the basic plot, but they kept coming to the theatre to see a particular treatment of the plot. (ie., How will these artists interpret this story?)

Another aspect of the book that felt classic was the idea of fate. After a certain turning point in the book, I began to think that some of the characters had lost their free will. Based on what we knew about each character, and what has preceded before, it was almost unthinkable that they could/would do anything other than what they did. Once a certain point was reached, everything was already decided.

Tartt writes beautifully, and she displays a strong grasp of human nature and characterization in this book. For me, this book read quickly, and I have already passed it along to a friend. For winter reading, I prefer a book that makes me think, and this fit the bill perfectly. This is a great winter book to curl up under a blanket with. Recommended.

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