Tuesday, May 29, 2007

I Liked It Better than Medea!

Over the long weekend I finished The Secret History by Donna Tartt. It was recommended by other readers who compared it to Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Both are mysteries about a elite, secretive group of students and a charismatic teacher. Many other readers preferred History, but I strongly preferred Calamity Physics. History zipped along at a dizzying, anxiety-ridden pace. However, unlike Calamity Physics, I didn’t have strong sympathy for History's narrator, Richard Papen. He just didn't have the strength of my girl Blue.

Richard is an unhappy student who dreams of leaving the home of his poor, indifferent parents in California. He transfers to Hampden College in rural Vermont and chooses to major in Greek with a small group of students hand-picked by Julian, their suave, inscrutable professor. From the beginning of the story, you know a character will die and you know who kills him, but the strong dramatic tension comes as you determine why this takes place and what happens to the characters as a result. Tartt uses many elements from classical Greek drama, Russian literature, and Southern gothic fiction. Tartt also mentioned in an interview that she was inspired by classic children’s literature—where a group of precocious children are left to their own devices. It’s all cleverly done, considering the students are studying and making constant references to Greek and literature at the time, yet seem unaware they’re trapped in their own Greek tragedy.

History reminded me strongly of the movie Match Point: I was manipulated into rooting for the murderers, unable to decide whether I want them to be exonerated or justice to be served. There was the strain of a working class character trying to camouflage himself in high society, and there were scenes that made me laugh and then feel guilty about laughing at something in the midst of such depravity.

I’m in a bit of a quandary. Although the graphic substance abuse, promiscuity, and violence in the book were extremely off-putting to me, I do recognize those as true characteristics of Greek drama and the other literary forms from which Tartt is borrowing. Tartt does show the way these dangerously curious and orphaned college students suffer from their actions, so she doesn’t glamorize their acts. It’s just not always easy for me to read. I appreciated History more than I enjoyed it. So…it’s hard for me to recommend this one even though I think it’s a smart book. Do as you will.

No comments: