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Psychological thriller set in New England college - Milpitas Post - Review of The Secret History by Donna Tartt

by Kel Kanady
Someone once told me that life is too short and there are too many excellent unread books out there to spend more than 50 pages on a book that doesn't grab you. While I generally agree with this somewhat harsh view, Donna Tartt's "The Secret History" is worth a bit more indulgence.
While the first paragraph begins, "The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He'd been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history state troopers, the FBI, even and army helicopter; the college closed, the dye factory in Hampden shut down, people coming from New Hampshire, upstate New York, as far away as Boston," the story meanders considerably for the next 70 pages. Stay with it you'll be glad you did.

Our narrator is Richard Papen, who escapes his oppressive suburban Californian life by enrolling in a small liberal arts college in Vermont. Richard is drawn to a small, mysterious clique of students who study only classic Greek and Latin. The elite group of five students is taught exclusively by Professor Julian Morrow. The group consists of one woman, Camilla, her twin brother Charles, and Francis, Henry and Edmund "Bunny" Corcoran. Henry is the obvious leader and is suspicious of Richard's attempt to join their private studies with Julian.

The five students share a background of East Coast wealth a striking contrast to Richard's linoleum and frozen dinner lifestyle. He is so drawn to them that he is willing to pretend to be a part of their economic sphere as well as give up his other classes, his academic adviser, and his other friends as he becomes immersed into Julian's world of ancient academia. Richard is enchanted by the five students.

"... I envied them and found them attractive; moreover this strange quality, far from being natural, gave every indication of having been intensely cultivated."

The author makes us wonder how far are people willing to go to fit in with others whom they admire? Will they drop other relations? Will they excuse elitism? Change their style of dress? Excuse murder? Conceal murder? Betray friendships?

As these students of superior intelligence delve further into ancient Greek studies, their odd behavior becomes cult-like. Richard remains partially connected and partially apart. While he continues to admire their superiority, he finally realizes that they have committed a terrible deed.

As often the case, one terrible deed weaves its way toward a second whose goal is to conceal the first deed. Each student deals with the pressures of betrayal, deception, and guilt. The reader becomes fascinated with the question of who will break and at what point?

This is a well-written story with intelligent references to literature, languages and social mores. These references initially made the time period seem elusive. The early clues seem purposefully ambiguous until mentions of cocaine, Sally-Jessy Raphael, and a video cassette recorder solidify the time as the 1980s. It is a fascinating look at the potential momentum of circumstance and the extent to which people allow themselves to be caught in an ever-increasing web of deceit.

Recommendation: This may not be a quick-read, but the spectacular prose and interesting storyline prove worth the effort.

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