Sunday, February 24, 2013

My History with "The Secret History"

I'm currently rereading Donna Tartt's The Secret History, something I tend to do every year or year and a half or so. It's one of my three favorite books (the other two being F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, a novel of terrible unfulfilled longing, and Robert R. McCammon's Boy's Life, a novel of wonder and sadness), and is the book I recommend most often to friends who ask for "a good book". I realized this morning that I most often get the urge to reread it during the winter, as it is fixed in my head as a winter book for two reasons: the first being that even though the book takes place over the course of a year, most of the important action happens during winter and a snowy spring, and the second being that the first time I read it was during winter break in my freshman year of college.

I was aware of "The Secret History" before reading it, because I'd read a review in "People" magazine that seemed interesting. (I don't know if "People" still does book reviews, but back in the 1990's they did.) I also heard about it here and there because for a while it seemed like everyone was reading this book; it wasn't the Fifty Shades of Grey of its day, but it might have been that fall's Gone Girl. I saw it in people's bags, noticed it in people's hands at the doctor's office or the dentist, but being that the internet was still a tiny baby in 1993 and I was not connected, I had no idea that people out in the wider world were talking about it in book groups and public libraries. I wasn't buying a lot of new books as a college freshman, since most of my disposable income was going toward going out on the weekends (and weekdays), comic books, and paying for the incidentals of college, but right before I left to go home for December break I noticed "The Secret History" on the new releases wall at the college library. Paging through, I recognized Donna Tartt's author photo from the "People" magazine review and vaguely remembered thinking that the review seemed interesting, and checked it out for the break.

I took it home, read it in the first two days of break, and upon finishing immediately began reading it again.

It's not hard to figure out what about this book connected with me. It's well written and engaging, but the real hook is that in my head Hampden College, the fictitious liberal arts college of less than 500 students in "The Secret History", became St. Lawrence University, the tiny liberal arts private school of less than 3,000 students that I wanted to attend but didn't. St. Lawrence was old and historical, like Hampden, and seemed filled with the kind of people that I wanted to be friends with: somewhat intelligent and casually wealthy, people who would recognize me as the special snowflake that I thought I was and embrace me as one of their own, people who seemed to my teenaged mind to just be a better class of people, one that I wanted to belong to. It would be several years before I realized that if I had gone to St. Lawrence I would have been in the same position as Richard, the narrator of "The Secret History", a middle class kid on financial aid trying to blend in with the privileged, wealthy elitists around him. Given that true life rarely works out as well as fiction, I doubt I would have been as readily embraced, and would probably have been somewhat miserable, stressed, and perpetually envious and resentful of my classmates. I was admitted to St. Lawrence and won a scholarship that would have covered $20,000 a year, but at the time attendance cost around $40,000 a year, and my parents wouldn't (and couldn't) pay the rest. Mom and dad, if you're reading, I'm not mad about this anymore.

My freshman year, though, when I picked up this book, I definitely still was. I hadn't settled into Cortland yet after only a semester, and was still resentful that I'd ended up having to go there instead of the snobbish expensive private school of my dreams, and here was a book whose snobbish expensive private school seemed to be exactly the one that I was missing out on: the wacky, entertaining characters in the book seemed better than the wacky, entertaining characters that I saw every day; the weekend parties seemed so much more interesting and glamorous than the weekend parties I went to; even the classrooms sounded better. This is, of course, because all of these things were fiction, but in my head they became the things that I was missing out on, and I embraced the book with bitter sadness, sure on some level that this was exactly the exciting life that I was deprived of by selfish parents. (Again, mom and dad, these were my feelings at the time. Please don't read this and then call me to talk this out. It's totally fine now.) Even the fact that the book's main plot revolves around the murder of a classmate and close friend of the main characters' seemed like the kind of exciting, sightly romantic adventure that I wasn't having at college. Nothing in "The Secret History" seemed wrong to me, but with age and (alleged) maturity I now read the book with more of a sense of the moral ambiguity. I can't ever decide now if Henry is evil or noble, and I'm no longer as sure that my own actions would mirror those of Richard, the narrator.

I did start eating, and do still eat, cream cheese and orange marmalade sandwiches because Charles did in the book. You should try it. They're delicious, especially on toast.

At any rate, this library copy was one of the four copies of the book that I've read over the years. When I felt like reading it again after that first December break I picked up a secondhand paperback copy at A Second Look Bookstore in Watertown, New York, with credit that I got from turning in some other books. At some point over the years this paperback copy, already a little banged up when I got it, wore out, and I replaced it with a hardcover. Oddly enough, I have no idea when or where I made this switch, but I know exactly when the copy that I'm reading now was purchased: I got it in Alexandria, Virginia, in June 2006 at a used bookstore just down the street from the restaurant where this truck with a horse statue and flag in the bed was parked:


I know the exact timing because I'd gone on a road trip to Washington, DC, with my friend Dana, and he had a specific purpose in going: he was going to meet up with friends at college on the steps of the Lincoln Monument at 6 PM on June 6, 2006. His car couldn't make the trip and I wanted to get out of town, so we took my car and stayed in Alexandria. The bookstore was between our stop on the Metro and our hotel, and I bought the book when I went into the bookstore by myself on our way back from dinner one of the nights that we were there. Dana didn't want to go into the bookstore with me (this happens to me a lot with friends and used bookstores; I can wander for hours looking for obscurities, and friends who have done it once often find excuses not to do it again) and went back to the hotel, and I picked up the hardcover for ten dollars when I saw it because I'd been unable to locate my copy that past winter when I'd wanted to read it. I assumed that I'd let someone borrow it and they hadn't returned it, and since I couldn't remember who I figured that it was gone and I needed a replacement.

On the way back from that trip I got the call to come interview for my current job in Tennessee, scheduling my travel in the passenger seat while Dana was driving my car, somewhere in Pennsylvania on the way back to New York. The trip was less productive for Dana: Our plan was that I would meet up with him and his friends at the Lincoln Monument at six and then we would all go to dinner, because I wanted to go tour the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, where you can watch money being printed but can't take photographs inside:


(and where the tour guides all say, over and over, "No, the tour doesn't include any samples," ending the statement with a bitter chuckle that tells you that this is a joke they've heard a thousand times before and now find rage-inducing), and Dana wanted to sit and contemplate life and write in his journal all day. I walked around Washington, something I'd done many times before, aimlessly wandering and taking photographs in beautiful summer sunshine:

jefferson monument

thumb sculpture

reflecting pool

was hit in the leg by a falling cherry:

cherry stain

as I passed beneath a tree:

death from above

and at six rushed to the Lincoln Monument:

pale, untanned legs

There I am, there's the Lincoln Monument, and there's Dana's journal on the step, but none of Dana's friends are in the picture because none of them came. Two of them called, but overall the trip was a bust for him. Dana and I took one more road trip before the end of summer, to Boston, where my car was totalled by a drunk driver:

remember when?

and then I moved to Tennessee and, in October, decided to alphabetize all of my books by author:

stupid alphabet

While doing so, I discovered that either my old copy of "The Secret History" hadn't been lost, or whoever had borrowed it had returned it before I moved, because I suddenly had two copies. I decided to take the copy from Alexandria (distinguishable by the price written inside the front cover, something my old copy didn't have) to McKay's, my local used bookstore, but somehow got the two copies switched. The next time I felt like rereading it, I discovered that I still had the Alexandria copy and had turned in the other.

Somehow this seems ok to me because the Alexandria copy, as I wrote above, has a secret history.


JMBower said...

This was a really really good post, especially put in the context with other posts. Nicely done. Write a book already.

DonnaD said...

But your parents really did enjoy using that boat. :)

How many people have you given copies of the book to? I really enjoyed it, but had trouble getting into the eventual second novel.

Joel said...

I think I've given out about ten copies over the years? At a guess.

I agree that the second book was a tough read. She has a third coming out this October, so I'm keeping hope alive.

strong cookie. said...

I love this book. I love this post talking about your secret history with this book. Thumbs up all the way.

Also, it makes me want to write a secret history for books that I really love.

Marcheline said...

I've been requesting "The Secret History" from my library for months now. Based on the books I rated highly, the "GoodReads" website suggested I might like it. Hopefully it will come in soon.