Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Catching Up With An Old Friend: Amy Cavanaugh on The Secret History

Today kicks off Catching Up With An Old Friend, a series in which readers, authors, and other bookish people share their favorite books. To participate, e-mail


"What's your favorite book?" That's a question that anyone who studies literature and writes about books is bound to hear repeatedly, and it's a question without an easy answer. There are many contenders for the title of my Favorite Book — I love Moby-Dick and consider it the Great American Novel, and I think The Portrait of a Lady's Isabel Archer is fascinating — but my very favorite is a book that each time I read it offers something new. The writing is bewitching and the characters are compelling, while the plot draws you in immediately and doesn't loosen its grip until you've finished reading it — and not even then. It is Donna Tartt's thoughtful, intelligent The Secret History.

Thinking about the impact a single book has had on my life got me thinking about other people's favorite books as well. Is your favorite a book that you've passed around to your friends and loved ones, eager to share the joys you've found inside it with others? Or is it a book that you keep to yourself, so that it's your favorite and no one else's? Has your favorite book changed over the years, or has it been your favorite for decades? What about the book makes it your favorite? What these questions all boil down to is: what does our favorite book say about us?

These are the questions I was thinking about when I decided to launch this series. I've asked writers, editors, book reviewers, book bloggers, and just plain lovers of literature to contribute to Catching Up With An Old Friend, and I'll be publishing their responses here weekly. If you'd like to participate, please e-mail your response to

I first happened across The Secret History in July 2002, in the basement of the Old Lyme Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library, but given that it was a New York Times bestseller in 1992, I really can't believe I didn't hear of it sooner. The books in the basement of the library were for sale, and when I came across my copy, which featured a Roman head on the front and no synopsis on the back, I was intrigued. I added it to my purchase pile, and bought it for $2.

I read The Secret History over the course of a few days in Old Lyme that July, and finished the book back home in Holyoke. As soon as I finished it, I began to press it into people's hands, roping my brother and mother in almost immediately. I've since shared it with many friends, and all have loved it, often as zealously as I do.

Tartt's story of a group of college kids studying classics at Hampden College in Vermont — and who happen to commit a murder — is beautifully written and cerebral. There's brilliant and multi-lingual Henry, flamboyant and cosmopolitan Francis, friendly and beautiful twins Charles and Camilla, and comical, tragic Bunny. Richard, who is starting fresh at Hampden after an unpleasant childhood in California, narrates the whole tale from years in the future, and shares the story as it unfolded for him.

The first half of the book explains how Richard falls in with the other students, who take classes exclusively with Julian, an arrogant yet charming professor. As a novel about students studying Classics, it's not surprising that the (easily influenced) students will adopt the "high cold principles" they're learning about: "duty, piety, loyalty, sacrifice," along with Classical philosophies like hedonism. The first murder occurs, after all, when the group attempts to convene with Dionysus and holds a bacchanal. The second murder occurs later, but Tartt has already told us it will happen, announcing on the first page that Bunny will die and that the other students murder him; it's a risky move that ends up working perfectly.

Richard, who never quite fit in anywhere before, desperately wants to be part of the group. He never loses this desire to fit in with the Classics clique, and at one point in the novel, he muses about how he simply turned Bunny over to them, a move that he knew would lead to Bunny's death. In the epilogue he comments that "you would think, after all we'd been through, that Francis and the twins and I would have kept in better touch over the years." The "thread which bound us" is cut, and the assistance with murdering Bunny that Richard provided the others was all for naught. He's an unreliable narrator, given his intense feelings about and admiration for the other students, but he's a narrator you're rooting for, if only so he'll provide you more access to this rarefied world.

The second half concerns the fall-out from Bunny's death and the existential questions and deep-seated resentments it brings out in the main characters. Ultimately an exploration of good and evil, The Secret History shows how easy it can be to move between the two.

Part of my affinity for the novel is due to timing. The summer I read The Secret History was the summer before I went off to college and the book delved deep into a world I was ready to inhabit — not a world of murderous classmates, but a world where literary conversations happen over tea and where people could wander down the hall to where their best friends lived. It was also the last summer I really went on an extended summer vacation, so the book bridged an ending and beginning. Even now, when I pick up the book, I'm transported to the time I read it, but I bring to each reading all the things that have happened in the interim. That's what's great about re-reading a book. It's like catching up with an old friend, a friend who has changed just a little bit since the last time you saw him.

I always used to hope that I would see someone reading the book, so I could run up to him or her and ask, "Isn't that just the greatest book?" I've never been able to do it, but the summer I worked at the Mount Holyoke College Library it happened to me. Sitting at the circulation desk, plowing through the novel, a professor stopped by and nodded at my open copy. "Don't get any ideas from that," he said, and carried on his way. I didn't have time to ask him what he thought about it, but I have to imagine that if he felt compelled to say something, he also appreciated Tartt's beautiful novel. That's what great books (or great song or great movies) do to us — they make us want to sing their praises and share them with people. I've shared mine with you, now it's your turn.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed Secret History too -- or at least seven-eighths of it. The plot and characters were compelling -- and made me wonder about the secret societies who met in creepy little buildings on my college campus (I wasn't a member). The only thing that threw me was the ending -- I thought it a gratuitous twist. I would have been satisfied with a more simple ending.