I often tell people that the book that really made me the reader I am today is The Secret History by Donna Tartt. What I realized recently is that, for all the times I cite this book and its importance to me, I actually no longer remember the story clearly! Certainly I remember that it begins with Bunny’s murder and that the first half of the novel leads you up to that central event, but what happened after? No matter how much I dug around in my mind, I simply couldn’t remember. I knew the main protagonists were a group of college kids studying classics, but what was the plot? Why did I care so much about this particular novel? I have never been one for repeat reading, but when I happened across my copy recently, I wondered if I should give it a go? Would a book that I had loved when I was 20, still appeal to me as I pace towards 50?
In the intervening years, since my original 1993 purchase of The Secret History, Donna Tartt has written only two more books. I’ve read, or rather tried to read, both. The Little Friend, published in 2002 was, to put it frankly, like wading through treacle. I’d been so excited to read Tartt’s next book that my expectation was sky high and it came crashing down around me, within a couple of chapters. As a consequence I was in no hurry at all to read The Goldfinch when it was published some eleven years later, but it arrived as a gift and so I dutifully read it and actually really enjoyed it, despite or maybe because it took me an age to get through.
I’d forgotten that The Secret History is one of those rare books that feels like a quick read, but really isn’t. It’s dense, like The Goldfinch, but not in such a conspicuous or deliberate way, or at least not to me. The pacing of this novel feels better and as a result I think it’s a lot more fun to read, in fact one might say ‘movie esque’, although no movie version has yet been made. The Goldfinch won a Pulitzer, so I don’t need to tell you that it’s the better novel, but it’s not quite so readable. .
I think that it must be a testament to Tartt’s writing, rather than my drinking from the fountain of eternal youth, that this book has aged with me. Although I’ve read hundreds of novels in the years since, I was still mesmerized by this story and couldn’t wait to return to it each night as I went to bed. For those of us who have attended college, I can conclusively say that Tartt paints a good picture of the diverse mix of people one encounters; of the parties, the attitude towards studying and yes, even those evils of alcohol, drugs and sex. What I didn’t remember from my first reading, or perhaps I was just too young to see this, is that she also captures the years after. Admittedly this is the much smaller part of the novel, but she’s right about how we change and yet carry certain things with us, all along the way.
This foray into rereading isn’t going to fuel me to do more of it. Yes, from time to time I might toy with the idea of rereading Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre etc, but overall, I’m happy to press forward and find new books and stories to enjoy. That said, this venture was a fun one and it’s nice for me to understand my own origins as a reader and to know that I am steadfast.