If Donna Tartt had written her first novel with the sole intention of appealing to spoiled Ivy Leaguers, she would probably still have ended up with “The Secret History.” It’s basically a laundry list of things a certain kind of Yalie loves: elitism, the classics, substance abuse, bisexuality, exorbitant wealth and a truly shocking lack of consequences for bad behavior.
This isn’t intended as a condemnation. Tartt is a gloriously evocative writer who knows how and when to linger over a well-crafted sentence like no one else, whether it’s her own or one of the many obscure quotes scattered throughout the text like Easter eggs for Classics majors. “The Secret History” is chock-full of the sort of overly pretty phrases that people like to get tattooed on their ribs, but her masterful touch makes them seem integral to the text. Tartt’s writing is luxuriant and intoxicating, just melodramatic enough to sell her at times implausible plot, self-indulgent in the same way as her characters.
And boy, are her characters ever awful: privileging intellect over simple human decency, cliquey and self-involved, unhealthily fixated on the Ancients. And boy, do I ever want to be just like them. The portrait Tartt paints of fictional Hampden College’s Classics department, a one-man operation completely divorced from the petty concerns of university funding and distributional requirements, is incredibly appealing. Having now met a thousand cut-rate versions of genius linguist Henry Winter, one of the novel’s protagonists, I still long to regard someone with “chill distaste” and tartly assert “I love Homer.” I still, despite having witnessed firsthand how awful they can be, long to be surrounded by “clever rich boys in dark suits” who marvel at my beauty as I quote the Oresteia from memory.
“The Secret History” is told from the perspective of people for whom, it seems, nothing ever really goes wrong, for whom money hardly ever runs out, for whom domestic violence is sexy instead of devastating; people who live in a world where the cops are happy to look the other way and everything can be fixed if you just put your mind to it. Watching them glamorously float above the trivialities of daily life is a heady, envy-inducing experience. Sure, they don’t end up particularly happy. Some of them even end up dead. But it’s all aesthetically pleasing and poignant in a way that real pain never is. We barely hear from the people who don’t even register on the rich kids’ radars, whose drug problems ruin their lives instead of just adding a splash of pathos to their image, who are shattered by the death of their friend. Sometimes they’re visible at the edge of the frame, but it’s usually just in time for someone to mock them for their excess of emotion and deficit of knowledge.
Even the secretly lower-middle-class, Californian narrator is able to adopt the East Coast elitism of his newfound peers, mirroring their disdain for the novel’s new-money antagonists. But his insecurity over his too-cheap clothes and his public school, over the fact that he didn’t get the chance to learn Latin in high school and his inability to casually drop hundreds of dollars on a boozy brunch, was the part of the charmingly implausible characters and narratives of “The Secret History” that rang truest.
It’s a feeling that most Yalies can relate to: the desperate sense that you could finally fit in, if only you were just a bit better connected and a little more independently wealthy, if only you had gone to a better high school or been able to get a high-powered internship at your parent’s company. It’s the ache of wanting to belong in a place that doesn’t want you and wasn’t built for you, of watching other people float above the problems that drag you down.
And so “The Secret History” speaks to something deeper than sordid college drama. Its plot is founded on a fact that becomes ever more clear the longer you spend at a place like Yale: rich people, especially rich white people and especially straight rich white men, can get away with almost anything. But the novel can’t be summed up in such a pat fashion, since its climactic scene is a revenge fantasy made real, where months of sexist, homophobic and classist insults are paid back in full. Maybe the novel’s true lesson is that no one is completely invulnerable, that even the richest party boy is shamed for his sexuality and even the most glamorous woman is subject to abuse, that even aloof geniuses long for love and approval. Even though the narrator is blind to his friends’ flaws, unable to see past their easy glide over the choppy waters of life, Tartt parts the ocean enough for us to see the swans frantically paddling just under the surface.