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The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

This was my first time ever reading a Donna Tartt novel. Although the book was good and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, I must say I was still left a bit disappointed by it because it didn't quite meet the high expectations I had based on all the rave and praise about her as an author.

So there is a murder in the book: the main characters kill one of their friends by pushing him down a ravine. This is not a spoiler since it's told on the first page. The rest of the book is about the reasons leading to the murder and the aftermath and police investigation following it. The close-knit friendships built in the first part of the book are torn apart when everyone is trying to save themselves. Mistrust, paranoia, envy, alcohol abuse, nervous breakdowns. But despite al of this what bothered me was the total lack of emotion I got from the characters right after the murder: it felt like they weren't actually sorry about the murder itself (like it was justified) but only started to get agitated later about the fact of possibly getting caught.

I  really liked the allegory of friendship in the book: how we all yearn for those great friendships that last through our lifetimes making us feel greater than we would be on our own and also the sorrow, envy and feeling of worthlessness and loneliness when we are left outside. How everyone of us has at some point of their life wanted to be a part of the "cool kids' group" and how much we would have been willing to do or sacrifice to make it happen. And how we all have taken part in an activity we really wouldn't want to but are too afraid to refuse fearing exclusion from the group of friends.

I got a feeling of sensationalism with some things about the book, like Francis being portrayed as gay (which was much of a bigger deal in the beginning of the nineties than it is today) and innuendo of the twins having sexual relations. Neither of these things was really necessary regarding the plot and seem to be in the book only to shock the reader and draw more attention from the media.

Some parts of the plots seemed also to be written only for the drama of it, instead of being in any way very plausible such as Richard refusing to ask for help when he is living in the icy cold warehouse  and rather risking to die of hypothermia and pneumonia than confessing his current state to anyone and being caught lying about his past. Other implausible events were the whole bacchanal that was the beginning for everything that started to go awry (I guess the whole event was deliberately left a bit obscure because I don't think there would have been any convincing explanation for me to find it in any way believable or natural) or when Richard agreed to join the murdering of Bunny without ever stopping to question the whole thing or to feel remorse (his admiration for Henry and desire to be part of the group exceeding the normal reaction of not wanting to take a part in killing someone).

I'm not sure if it's the fact that I'm reading this book over 20 years after it was first published but all the while reading I had a weird sense of familiarity, which made me wonder if I had read the book before and just forgotten about it. I came to the conclusion that I had not in fact read the book and the feeling of déjà-vu was caused by something else: the storyline must have heavily influenced the popular culture ever since its first release. Another weird sensation I got from the book was the way it totally obscured time to the point that in the beginning it was quite hard to determine if the story took place in the present day or decades ago making everything into a mesmerizing, romantic haze.

But all in all, the story was a very well written murder thriller although without the usual aspect of wondering who's the victim and who's the perpetrator as it's revealed on the first page of the book. Instead you keep wondering why they did it - what could be enough of a reason for 5 college students to murder their friend - and if they get away with it. I was totally hooked with the story despite a few short-comings in the plot and all the characters being very unlikable.

Tartt is at her best when setting moods and painting the surroundings; so vividly describing is her style of writing that at times reading the book almost felt like watching a movie - it felt more like I had actually seen the things instead of just reading them and imagining how they look. I do recommend this book but keep in mind that although it's a very good book, it's in my opinion by no standards a masterpiece despite it being hailed as a contemporary classic.

By the way, has anybody read the Goldfinch? Is it really as good as they say, or should I have liked the Secret History more to appreciate Tartt's newest novel?


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