The Secret History: Debby’s First Love

(Finished with The Secret History)

Debby: If my heart could write a novel, it would beat to the rhythm of The Secret History. Dianna Tartt and I are most certainly kindred spirits. She has written the most tantalizing (and often harrowing) novel that I have read in years. I love the classical mythological elements (unlike the mid-century-mythos-drudgery that Davies toyed with). I love how elevated her characters appear, as if they are gods among mortals. But the way she casts shadows in her story, the way each individual struggles with their personal reality, is simply brilliant. I was engaged from beginning to end.

Tim: Let me begin by saying this: I do not hate this book. I have a feeling that I’m about to be playing devil’s advocate a lot, so I want to be absolutely clear that I like this book, I enjoyed reading most (but not all) of this book, and none of the following should be construed as me bashing on a book because I didn’t like it. THAT SAID, I do not see how you can say this is the most tantalizing or harrowing novel you’ve read in years. But even that’s more a matter of taste than anything else, so let’s start with the characters. Go with me, for a moment to the first Greek class that Richard takes part in. Let us watch as Julian descends from his sepulcher to bless them with a lecture of airy nothingness. The entire exchange just struck me as super fake, an idealized version of a class that had little relation either to reality or the particular people taking part in the exchange. “And what is beauty?” “Terror.” What is this?

Debby: {Takes her book back from Tim’s dastardly hands and flips to the pages she heavily underlined} I can tell you, without a doubt, that that class was what first made me realize how much I identified with this book. I literally looked at my roommate, reading nearby, and told her “You know those classes in college where you realized just how brilliant your professor was and could listen to him/her for days? Yeah. This book is exactly like that. And it’s a BOOK. So I can experience it over and over again!” Take this passage for example:

    “We don’t like to admit it,” said Julian, “but the idea of losing control is one that fascinates controlled people such as ourselves more than almost anything. All truly civilized people– the ancients no less than us– have civilized themselves through the willful repression of the old, animal self. Are we, in this room, really very different from the Greeks or the Romans? Obsessed with duty, piety, loyalty, sacrifice?” (p. 40)

Debby (cont’d): This passage not only alludes to the compelling twist in the novel, but it also perfectly encapsulates something every college student/young adult must deal with. We are released from the supervision of our parents and suddenly find the world at our feet. I saw so many college friends “lose control” (as adults liked to call it) because they found freedom so tantalizing. Particularly being raised in a conservative, Christian community, the bounds of religion seemed to become more opaque as we moved further from home and parental influence. What are drugs and alcohol, if not means by which we loosen ourselves from our natural hold and abandon our bodies to instinct and desire?

Tim: Ok, but stop for a minute. Personally, I think you’re reading way too much into a passage that’s lacking context coming that early in the book, but that’s not even my point, exactly. The class felt, I don’t know, idealized in a way that was super removed from reality rather than drawing it out. You said the characters seemed like gods among mortals, and I got the same sense, but I didn’t pull that much enjoyment from it. It made sense to the characters, how that’s sort of gradually eroded, but long before that I was annoyed with how elite they were made to be – not just talked about being, but actually came across as somehow better than their classmates. Again, didn’t hate the book. I acknowledge that it did some of what it was trying to do, I just think that execution didn’t work for me in the same way it did for you.

Debby: Hmm… I can understand why that could have the potential to annoy. But I think it’s the same “elitism” that fascinates me about secret societies. Obviously, they’re not better people, but they do have something that no one around them has. It’s the same with privileged socialites– it’s why “Gossip Girl” and “Revenge” are such ridiculously popular shows. They are (for better or worse) literally living in a world removed from our own. It is the only reason the climax works in this book. What group of students would condone the killing of stranger and then their best friend? They are living by their own rules, their own morals. I’m not saying that it is something to strive for or desire, but it is a fascinating experience in and of itself.

Tim: Yeah, I guess…but I never felt wholly placed within that group, I guess. Do you remember when Richard found out they killed the farmer? There’s a section where he starts to reconcile odd details from the past with this new information – except that they’re details we never saw. I realize this isn’t a murder mystery, per se, but it bothered me that I couldn’t identify with Richard when he started putting these details together. I was removed from his experience, not party to it.

Debby: The short answer is: I responded to this book very differently than you did. This book worked for me. It pulled me in from the very beginning, while you felt left out. Obviously, we can’t change each others feelings about this. I look forward to discussing positions on this novel that we shared.

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