As you may have guessed, I'm a big fan of college and coming-of-age novels; I work at a university, for crying out loud. Well, The Secret History sorta falls into these categories, but wasn't at all what I'd expected. It's the story of an odd, exclusive group of intellectuals at Hampden College (a fictitious Vermont liberal arts college reportedly based on Bennington) who murder one of their own. This isn't giving anything away, as the first page finds our narrator -- Richard, an unlikely working-class transplant from the distinctly un-Californian California town of Plano -- remembering and reflecting on the discovery of Bunny's body. After the prologue, we flash back to Richard's initial arrival on campus. While he's eager to continue his study of Greek, he quickly learns from his advisor that the sole Greek professor, Julian, is somewhat of an odd duck, admitting only the smallest handful of students to his courses, and those for somewhat inscrutable reasons of his own.
After jumping through some hoops, of course, Richard gets in, and is quickly persuaded to drop all his other courses and switch advisors to devote the entire term to studying with Julian. He's slowly absorbed into the insular clique of Julian's students: the scholarly and methodical Henry, the ringleader; flamboyant but fragile Francis; ethereal and kindly twins Charles and Camilla; and the doomed and frankly obnoxious Bunny. How we get from the first unreal weekend at Francis's country estate to Bunny's harrowing death and beyond provides the meat of the story.
While I enjoyed the book, I found it difficult to get into at first -- largely because none of the principals are especially likeable. This may, however, be deliberate; as Richard Threadgall's review on Amazon puts it,
"[The Secret History] is a rapturous, beautiful, intricate and balanced work of art; it is also oddly archaic, strangely disconnected from reality, and oftentimes more dissolute than well-worked. In praise, its insight into the kind of effete degeneracy that seems to well up when one isolates maturing intellectuals with one another is chillingly apt: It is apt, however, more in the sense of metaphor than in any naturalistic sense. The romance, luxuriousness, and cruel beauty of the cultivated degeneracy Tartt takes as her theme is evoked with brilliance and not inconsiderable talent."
Tartt does capture the disorienting nature of a new college student's loneliness achingly well, particularly in her description of Richard's remaining on campus for the Christmas break. All in all, this is an interesting if occasionally plodding meditation about the fleeting nature of youth, beauty, and college friendships, and the seductive nature of intellectual pursuits. Not a quick beach read, but certainly recommended if you like something to sink your teeth into now and then.