The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

This is a fascinating novel that begins with what purports to be an accidental death—of a college student named Bunny. But it has happened because five other students at Hampden, an obscure Vermont college, believe Bunny intends to reveal their involvement in the death of a Vermont farmer during a strange ritual. One of the five students is the narrator, Richard, who has fallen in with the other four shortly after the farmer’s death. The other students are Henry, the group’s manipulative leader; Frances, wealthy and seductive; and the twins, beautiful but aloof, Charles and Camille.

The novel is immediately fascinating because of how deeply the author understands these students and how well she communicates their bravado and their uncertainties. And yet, even as both their talk and their actions are convincing, the students themselves do not come alive on the page as separate individuals. Not even Richard, the narrator of their tale, a poor California youth who pretends to come from wealth. This may well be because all five are under the spell of eccentric Greek professor, Julian Morrow, whose favorite saying is “beauty is terror,” and whose cultural frame of reference they have all absorbed.

The academic atmosphere, yes, comes alive, but not the characters. If these six youths seem more types than vividly individual students, it may also be because little dramatic happens after the opening pages. They are more interested in themselves than in each other. Early on, these students talk a lot, often about the Greek classics they study. And the author certainly knows those classics. But such discussions contribute more to the college atmosphere than to any dramatic developments.

Yet this rich atmosphere and the author’s fluid style sustain one’s interest.           What drives the novel early on is the fear among the four students that, angry he was not included in the ritual that resulted in the farmers death, a blackmailing Bunny will betray them. And half-way into this novel, after discussing what to do about Bunny, they quickly plan the “accident,” the murder that begins the novel. Narrator Richard is present, but more as a witness than a participant. Yet he is conscience-stricken and filled with guilt.

The students’ desperate reactions are interesting, but overall I am turned off by what is happening in this book—even as I read on to find out why this interesting author has written this novel. Where is she going with it? Certainly, identifying with these characters—with their defense of and justification of their actions—becomes difficult.

For example, the five students at first stand around and talk, often drinking or indulging in drugs, as they wait for various search parties to discover Bunny’s body and the apparent accidental circumstances. Then, after a brief campus-wide mourning, the five students attend Bunny’s funeral in Connecticut. All the while talking and drinking, talking about what they should do next. It is a well-drawn portrait of guilt, denial, and desperation, but nothing is really happening externally, certainly nothing dramatic.

In the final pages, the students try to come to terms with a situation in which their mutual guilt is compounded by a distrust of each other. Will one of them betray the others? Henry grows elusive. Charles gets drunk and becomes desperate. Francis panics. While narrator Richard follows them around—ineffectual, but indispensible for telling the story.

Two plot developments bring the story to a head—a melodramatic head. First, Professor Morrow, who has guided these privileged students into a world of dark conspiracies, makes a discovery that changes his view of them and the reader’s view of him. It is not a convincing shift, but seems to occur because it leaves these students without their cultural base, without the professor’s intellectual and emotional support they have long relied on.

And so they are on their own. And become desperate. One fearing death and finding a gun. One hiding from responsibility. One feeling helpless, and out of the loop. And then there is a melodramatic confrontation, followed by a death. Is there meant to be a moral here, that the victimizer becomes the victim?

The novel ends with a brief epilogue that describes the future of the various characters. But there are no revelations that further explain their actions during this melodrama of their student lives. Nor do those events have any impact on their future lives. It is simply a round-up chapter, like those that once concluded old-fashioned novels. But for me, it is a cop-out. It carries no significance. The significance of this novel is in their student experience—an experience that has turned this novel into a college novel like no other. It is as if the author has been guided into reverting to tradition. But the content of this novel is far from traditional.

And so, one asks where was the author trying to go with this novel? She began it while in college, and so one can easily conclude that she chose the college setting. That is, she decided to write from experience. But obviously, she was inspired to write something that was different. She wished to probe the psychology of students reacting to two deaths they are responsible for. There are no love stories here, nor tales of academic woes. No, this is about guilt and its repercussions.

In fact, Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, after praising this novel for its controlled pace and its entertainment value, comes to a conclusion similar to mine: “Because Ms. Tartt’s characters are all such silly customers, they do not so much lose their innocence as make a series of pragmatic, amoral decisions. As a result, real guilt and suffering doe not occur in this novel; neither does redemption. The reader is simply left with a group portrait of the banality of evil.”

My first caveat is that guilt and suffering do occur. But are simply not recognized. For what else drives the inexplicable, melodramatic climax?

Nor do I find evil present in this novel. Especially a Dionysian evil out of the Greek classics. That is too much weight for these studious but callow youths to carry. They simply do not know as much as they think they know. And are unprepared for their own fateful decisions. (November, 2018)

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch (2013) is quite a novel, quite an ambitious novel. Tartt writes here everything she knows about life and everything she knows about art, as well as about how they intersect, how the artist is inspired at one moment in time and how the viewer is inspired on seeing the same art 400 years later.

This work is about such a work of art, a classic portrait of a goldfinch, and how fate has put it into the hands of Theo Decker, the hero of this novel, when he is only thirteen. It has been put into his hands by a dazed and dying older man named Blackwell after a terrorist bomb has exploded in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The traumatized Blackwell believes he is saving the painting from a violent past in Europe.

The novel is not about the explosion, however. It is about the emptiness that that explosion leaves in the heart of Theo when his mother is killed in the same explosion. Indeed, she becomes so alive in even a few pages at the start of this novel—especially when he returns to their apartment after the explosion and keeps waiting for his mother to join him—that we feel the emptiness of a world without her and immediately understand how and why Theo feels so alone and disconnected. It is a situation I could relate to, having lost my own parents early, and so I identified with Theo and became fascinated by his story. How was this boy going to survive such a tragedy?

The result is a novel that evolves into three parts. The first part, and the most successful, follows an “orphaned” Theo as he is taken in by the Park Avenue family of his best friend, Andy. At first, the Seymour family takes pity on him, but his goodness earns their respect. He also calls on Blackwell’s partner Hobie, who repairs furniture in the couple’s antique store. But then he is wrenched out of this scene by the re-emergence of his gambling father, and I did not look forward to his move out west to his father’s unstructured life.

In a vividly described Las Vegas, Theo meets Boris, a mysterious, street-smart Polish/Russian youth who will become central to this story, as Theo moves from the disciplined household of his mother to an undisciplined world of alcohol, drugs, and adventure. Boris will become a force in this book, clever at persuading Theo to defy convention and take risks. But this vivid boy is too one-dimensional for me, seeming to serve the author as a means to advance the plot and never really changing as that plot advances.

The first part continues, as Boris persuades an unhappy Theo to return to New York, where he once was happy. Theo’s friend Andy has died, and so he turns to Hobie, who comes to trust him with more and more responsibility. But Theo has concealed one thing, that he still has the painting of the goldfinch. He has carried it, without telling anyone, from his mother’s apartment to the Seymours, to his father’s house out west, and now back to Hobie’s store. It seems to fill the gap left by the loss of his mother, and he is filled with guilt for hiding it, but is also afraid he will be punished if he turns it in.

This first part works, not least because the restoration and antique business of Hobie is so real. Which required considerable research by the author, but is worked in smoothly until we believe in Hobie and the business. In addition, Theo is fascinated by Pippa, a young girl who also survived the explosion. And who will be a love interest as elusive as the goldfinch itself.

But then part two jumps eight years, and Theo is a young man in charge of the business side of the antique shop. He becomes less attractive as a hero, however, and my identification with him is diminished. Because he sells restored antiques as real when he learns the shop is losing money under Hobie. He wants to save the shop, but does the end justify the means? My reservations are compounded, moreover, by a pharmaceutical addiction that Boris has encouraged, and that reflects Theo’s sense of guilt, because of both his financial activities and his continual possession of the Met’s missing painting. Equally worrisome is his pursuit of Pippa.

And now Boris returns, and the novel enters its third part, which is an adventure story. For Boris reveals he has deceived Theo. He has made off with the painting, and it is in Europe. But he has a plan to retrieve it. He will not tell Theo the plan, however, and its execution in Europe is confusing to the reader. It is suffice to say that there are meetings with mysterious men along with gunfire and death, as if Tartt has decided to forgoe the guilt and moral ambiguities of her story and to sustain reader interest with action.

I think this strategy is a mistake. The novel loses its depth and emphasizes its surface action. Proof of a missing potential seems to be in the final coda, as, a year later, Theo reviews what has happened to him, and comes to some interesting conclusions about life being short but often cruel, while both human love and the love of art can last forever.

Tartt describes the artist painting the goldfinch: “the brush strokes he permits us to see, up close, for exactly what they are—hand worked flashes of pigment, the very passage of the bristles visible—and then, at a distance, the miracle, or the joke…the slide of transubstantiation where paint is paint and yet also feather and bone.” And then, she continues: “It’s the place where reality strikes the ideal, where a joke becomes serious and anything serious is a joke. The magic point where every idea and its opposite are equally true.”

She continues, with Theo concluding: “I’ve come to believe there is no truth beyond illusion. Because, between where “reality” on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic. And—I would argue as well—all love.”

This is the exploration of art and the human awareness of love, that I wish this novel had treated once Theo’s guilt at retaining the painting has begun to trouble him. And not relied on the exaggerated character of a Boris who dominates both Theo and the action of this novel, and as a consequence the European finale that rightly belongs to another novel. (November, 2015)