Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Book #1: Donna Tartt's "The Secret History"

I ended 2016 by rereading Donna Tartt's The Secret History, a book with which I have a long and complicated history of my own. It continues to be one of my three favorite books in the world, and continues to be a book that I recommend and give out to others. This past year, I gave it to one person in the Facebook book exchange, and I hope they liked it.

(And yes, I know the book exchange was a terrible pyramid scheme, but I sent out one book and got back two, so as far as I'm concerned the book exchange worked, because I got a free book.)

I generally only reread this book when I have a "hey, I haven't read that in a while" feeling, the way that I sometimes decide that it's been a while since I watched a particular movie, but right before Christmas my friend Jackie decided that we should reread it together. She has not yet finished her re-read, but she also started later than I did, as she was locating her copy. I'm not going to talk too much about the book, since I've already written the long entry about it linked above, but I have a few thoughts.

The first thing I noticed was that I find it much harder to get into this book when it isn't winter. The book itself, for the most part, covers an academic year at the fictitious Hampden College, so a good chunk of it is in winter and a lot of important plot developments take place then, but even though a lot of the plot is also in the other three seasons it's fixed in my head as a wintertime book, possibly since that's also when I first read it. By about a third of the way through I had slipped comfortably back into the story, but in the beginning I was kind of not really in this mood.

Even when I did finally get into it, I still felt a little detached from the plot, fully aware of what was coming up next and mentally bookmarking where I was in the story. Because of that, I noticed a small continuity error that I hadn't noticed before: Francis, one of the main characters, lives in an apartment that's owned by the college. Richard, the narrator, spends a few paragraphs describing the building being owned by the college, being sought-after upperclass student housing, having 70's fixtures and finishes, and mentioning the kind of things that Francis has furnished the apartment with. A few pages after that, though, on page 167, Henry, while sitting in Francis' apartment with Francis and Richard, mentions an interaction with his landlady, and Francis claims the same interaction. Francis doesn't have a house and landlady, though, because he lives in campus housing. I've never caught the error before in any of my other readings, but it comes right at a pretty central moment in the plot, so I assume I've always been too caught up in the story at that point to nitpick something like that out.

The other thing I thought while reading this is that Tartt does a really good job at something that I would call offhand authenticity, or maybe local Hampden College color. Most of the random characters mentioned in the book as asides and world-building extras feel like the kind of random people and random stories that I ran into in college. Judy, Richard's neighbor, casually tells a story involving "Flipper" Leach, so-called because she flipped her car "four or five times" (Judy, a notorious cokehead, is probably exaggerating), and I'm reminded of Left Field, a girl who moved onto our floor in the spring of freshman year and was called "Left Field" at her old school because she got hit in the mouth with a softball and it knocked out a bunch of her teeth. Midway through spring of that year I watched a drunken Left Field and Michelle, my friend Alena's roommate who once almost crushed Alena by bunking their beds herself instead of having maintenance do it and then being surprised when they came crashing down in the middle of the night, stopped only by the dresser, sing "I will Survive" without looking at the screen during a karaoke night. Tartt peppers the book with those kind of random stories and asides about the people that Richard interacts with at Hampden, and it makes the college seem real because people who have been to college and lived on campus know people like that. Granted, it's probably because all of these small and small stories are based on people that Tartt met in college, but it still makes reading this sound like a real college.

By the end of this, I was glad I reread it again, as I always am. If you haven't read it, maybe you should.

Onward, to Book #2 for 2017!

1 comment:

Justin Bower said...

I barely got my list up, and you're already done with your first book. Sigh. As usual, though, a lot of good suggestions on your list. You'll probably see some of them on my list next year...