Monday, June 1, 2009

74. A Secret History – Donna Tartt

August 2007
History: the book was published in 1992. It mirrors, in many ways, the notion of a Greek tragedy with fate playing a large part in dictating the very circumstances that lead to an escalation of already fermenting issues.
Plot: As the story opens, Richard leaves Plano, California, where he is generally unhappy, for Hampden College in Vermont. His approach to his background is in keeping with a theme of literary beauty, in comparison to harsh reality, that continues throughout the novel. He misleads others about his background as necessary, replacing his mediocre working-class childhood with a fabricated one of elite boarding schools and oil wealth.
After moving to Vermont, Richard requests to continue his study of Ancient Greek, only to be told that the class is full, as Classics professor Julian Morrow limits his enrollment to five students. Richard becomes obsessed with the small group of classics students who are studying Greek, often observing them around campus. This continues until he manages to ingratiate himself with the group, helping them solve a Greek grammar problem as they study in the college library. Soon after, armed with advice from the students on how to impress Julian, he meets with him once more and is finally admitted to the select Classics program.
Gradually Richard gets to know the group better. It consists of fraternal twins Charles and Camilla Macaulay, who are charming but secretive, as well as Francis Abernathy, whose secluded country home becomes a sanctuary for the group. The two remaining students in particular now become the central focus of the story: the "linguistic genius" Henry Winter, a studious intellectual with a passion for the classics and Plato, and the back-slapping Bunny Corcoran, a slightly bigoted jokester.
Their relationship, already considered odd by Richard, becomes even more mystifying when Bunny announces that he and Henry will be spending the winter break together in Italy. This, despite the fact that Henry appears barely tolerant of Bunny and that Bunny is unable to afford such a lavish holiday himself. In fact, it is Henry who is footing the bill for the trip.
When they return, Richard notes that the relationship between the rest of the group and Bunny has become even more strained. Ultimately, Richard learns the truth: during a Bacchanal (without Richard or Bunny), Henry had inadvertently killed a farmer. Bunny, having been suspicious for some time, uncovers the truth in Italy after reading some of Henry's private notes, and he blackmailed them ever since. The group, led by Henry, begin to view Bunny as the weak link who threatens to reveal their secret, and Bunny does not ingratiate himself to the others with his knack for playing on his friends' fears and insecurities.
No longer able to meet Bunny's demands and fearing that Bunny will report the matter to the police, the group resolves to kill Bunny. Henry forms several plots to accomplish such, and he finally goes ahead after Bunny tells Richard of the killing in a drunken rant. Bunny is killed while hiking. Henry pushes him, and he falls to his death.
The remainder of the novel focuses on the aftermath of Bunny's death, especially the collapse of the group, the psychological strains of remorse borne by the individual members and their efforts to maintain secrecy as investigators and other students develop theories about Bunny's disappearance. Charles develops alcoholism and becomes increasingly abusive towards his sister. Francis begins to suffer panic attacks. Julian discovers the evidence in the form of a pleading letter sent to him by Bunny, imploring him to help him: "You're the only one who can." Julian never reports the crime but instead leaves the college.
With the group splintered, the members deal with their crime, to a large extent, in isolation. After Julian's departure, Henry completely breaks down: subtly attempting to kill Charles, living and sleeping with Camilla and informing Richard that the murders liberated him. When Henry commits suicide, the group disintegrates: Francis, a homosexual, is forced by his rich grandfather to marry a woman; Camilla takes care of her grandmother and ends up isolated; Charles runs from rehab with a married woman; Richard, the narrator, becomes a lonely academic whose love for Camilla is unrequited. Henry's death is described as having cut the cord between them and set them all adrift.
Review: A wonderful and haunting. I really liked this book.
Opening Line: “Does such thing as “the fatal flaw,” that showy dark crack running down the middle of life the exist outside of literature?”
Closing Line: “He turned from me and walked away, I watched his back reeding down the long gleaming hallway.”
Quotes: "If I had grown up in that house I couldn't have loved it more, couldn't have been more familiar with the creak of the swing, or the pattern of the clematis vines on the trellis, or the velvety swell of land as it faded to gray on the horizon . . . . The very colors of the place had seeped into my blood."
Rating: superb.

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