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Clarissa's Blog

An academic's opinions on feminism, politics, literature, philosophy, teaching, academia, and a lot more.

Book Notes: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History 

I’m having a very weird reading year, folks. Everything I read, in every genre and every language, turns out to be crap. Aside from Tayeb Salih’s wonderful novel, everything else has been quite bizarre. 

I never read Donna Tartt before, and sheesh, what a weird, weird novel. It’s like fantasy but without any magic. Completely implausible characters in utterly implausible situations doing and saying ridiculously implausible things. It isn’t hard to keep up the suspense when everybody is so completely implausible. 

Another problem with the novel is that characters are always drunk. Every page of the 560-page novel reminds the readers that everybody is drunk. I haven’t encountered so many drunk characters since I stopped watching Russian police procedurals. I felt by the end of it that I would never be able to look at an alcoholic beverage without intense boredom after reading this novel. 

There are positive sides to the novel, though. For one, it’s long. I bought another novel by Tartt, and it’s a cool 1,000 pages. This beautiful length is enough to excuse many things in my eyes. Also, The Secret History is very escapist and requires zero intellectual investment from the readers. It’s the perfect beach read. I’m not on the beach but I’m planning a beach vacation, so a beach novel makes sense. 

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9 thoughts on “Book Notes: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History 

  1. Interesting. I compiled a list of books to read and that one was among them (see here: Authors familiar and unfamiliar | Notes from underground) and after reading your review I think I might cross it off my list. I did, however, read The little friend, which I quite enjoyed, though I thought it had a rather unsatisfactory ending, but the people weren’t drunk all the time (the protagonist is 12 years old).

    I have, however just finished reading a sad book about sad people many of whom were drunk a lot of the time: Last exit to Brooklyn loveless passion | Khanya.

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  2. \ Everything I read, in every genre and every language, turns out to be crap.

    I really recommend “Suite française” by Irène Némirovsky. Haven’t watched the movie, but love her writing, which I read in English translation.

    I have also become curious about “A Legacy” by Sybille Bedford, but haven’t tried it yet.

    Another book which I am planning to read and have wanted to mention to you for a while is “My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner: A Family Memoir” by Meir Shalev. The description of the book on Amazon sounds interesting and funny. (See below)

    Another Israeli book (which I read partly and know it is very good) is “A Tale of Love and Darkness” by Amos Oz.

    Btw, have you heard about “The Nix” by Nathan Hill? I saw the book in the library, but was actually intimidated by its 640 pages. It is advertised as NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER.

    “The Nix is a mother-son psychodrama with ghosts and politics, but it’s also a tragicomedy about anger and sanctimony in America. . . . Nathan Hill is a maestro.” —John Irving

    FROM AMAZON – A Tale of Love and Darkness

    A family saga and a magical self-portrait of a writer who witnessed the birth of a nation and lived through its turbulent history. A Tale of Love and Darkness is the story of a boy who grows up in war-torn Jerusalem, in a small apartment crowded with books in twelve languages and relatives speaking nearly as many. The story of an adolescent whose life has been changed forever by his mother’s suicide. The story of a man who leaves the constraints of his family and community to join a kibbutz, change his name, marry, have children. The story of a writer who becomes an active participant in the political life of his nation.

    FROM AMAZON – My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner

    From the author of the acclaimed novel A Pigeon and a Boy comes a charming tale of family ties, over-the-top housekeeping, and the sport of storytelling in Nahalal, the village of Meir Shalev’s birth. Here we meet Shalev’s amazing Grandma Tonia, who arrived in Palestine by boat from Russia in 1923 and lived in a constant state of battle with what she viewed as the family’s biggest enemy in their new land: dirt.

    Grandma Tonia was never seen without a cleaning rag over her shoulder. She received visitors outdoors. She allowed only the most privileged guests to enter her spotless house. Hilarious and touching, Grandma Tonia and her regulations come richly to life in a narrative that circles around the arrival into the family’s dusty agricultural midst of the big, shiny American sweeper sent as a gift by Great-uncle Yeshayahu (he who had shockingly emigrated to the sinful capitalist heaven of Los Angeles!). America, to little Meir and to his forebears, was a land of hedonism and enchanting progress; of tempting luxuries, dangerous music, and degenerate gum-chewing; and of women with painted fingernails. The sweeper, a stealth weapon from Grandpa Aharon’s American brother meant to beguile the hardworking socialist household with a bit of American ease, was symbolic of the conflicts and visions of the family in every respect.

    The fate of Tonia’s “svieeperrr”—hidden away for decades in a spotless closed-off bathroom after its initial use—is a family mystery that Shalev determines to solve. The result, in this cheerful translation by Evan Fallenberg, is pure delight, as Shalev brings to life the obsessive but loving Tonia, the pioneers who gave his childhood its spirit of wonder, and the grit and humor of people building ever-new lives.

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  3. I read the novel somewhere between five and ten years ago (I think). I enjoyed it though I realized there wasn’t much there.

    What she does well (which won’t resonate with you at all because your experience is so different) is…. evoke certain aspects of early to mid 1980’s US university life (for roughly middle class white people). I had vivid flashbacks of my own experiences (though the actual circumstances I went through were very different).

    Many characters seemed like exaggerated and stylized versions of people I had known (my mental pictures of the characters were mostly people I had known).

    I also had sort of gotten myself into a student clique around a charismatic professor at one point and that ended badly (no murder, but no fun either at the end). That in-group dynamic was very well captured.

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    • I just can’t imagine a group of 20-year-old students passionate about ancient Greek. Especially rich kids. If it were something computer related, or music and dance, or even modern languages. But classics?

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      • “I just can’t imagine a group of 20-year-old students passionate about ancient Greek”

        The thing is…. I can. The group I was in was about something just about as… esoteric, maybe more so. And we were verrrrry involved (again not to the point of killing people, but not far from it). Socio-economically we were pretty mixed with at least one person from money.

        As late as the 1980’s at American universities the idea of exploring (and becoming fanatic about) something out of the mainstream for its own sake divorced of considerations of career was still very much alive. The first signs of the malignant four C’s (corporatism, careerism, credentialism, connections) had uncoiled in the dark and had started to slither out into the sunshine but they hadn’t taken over yet.

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        • It was a different world, then. Because I can’t even begin to imagine such students at any of the schools I’ve been at. It would be cool to see students of this kind at least once before I die. But my imagination fails me.

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  4. “I’m having a very weird reading year, folks. Everything I read, in every genre and every language, turns out to be crap”

    Maybe your sub-conscious is gearing up for a career change?

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  5. If you want some American hard drinking, read The Thin Man by Dashell Hammett. It’s set right after the Repeal of Prohibition, about 1933 or 34 IIRC. Also the movie starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, based on the book.

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