‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt

Mount Readmore Book Review 2018, 136/200


Audiobook Edition

Finished on 9/10/2018


Genres: Contemporary, Literary, Fiction, DNF

Unlikable People Drink: the Novelization

Spoiler-ific review

I’m not going to give this a rating because I didn’t finish it.

Not all books are for all people, and this is one such book for me. I have a rule of reading at least 50 pages before tapping out- a number which I more than doubled in this case. I gave this book a fair shot, so here’s my impression of this book based on my incomplete reading.

The prose was fantastic, some of the best I’ve ever read. This is my first venturing into the Literary Genre, so I’m not surprised that the prose was really good. The author gave this a lived-in narration feel to this book, with clear-yet-beautiful prose which was pleasant to read in and of itself.

The setting was flush and well drawn. The reader really feels the surreal experience of Richard’s school career along with him. Vermont feels like a rustic backwater, where the rich and indolent go to squander their wealth into oblivion.

The characterization was excellent in some ways, but meager in others.

The excellent: the author gave all the characters distinct physical descriptions and behavior, in her attempt to make them distinct. For example, you can’t trust Bunny because he’ll try to make you pay the check if you take him to a restaurant, and Richard is doing his best to fit in with a bunch of wealthy pretenders because he doesn’t know better since he’s too young. This is good characterization because in this way they are each unique.

However the author gave all the main characters uniform personality traits. It was hard for me to keep the characters straight because they were all greedy, snobby, pretentious alcoholics (except for Henry). To make things worse, the protagonist was something of a  mirror, reflecting the uniform personalities of his peers. This is bad characterization because in this way they are all identical. The only exception was Henry.

Okay, and here’s where things go down hill.

The pacing was just flat out bad.

On page one there’s a murder. For the next one hundred and eight pages (or 5 hours if you’re listening the audiobook like me), there isn’t another mention of said murder again. I gave up at the 5 hour mark, so for all I know the murder is never discussed again.

By starting the book with a murder the author was basically saying ‘Look, I promise this book will get interesting with a murder! Just bare with me for hundreds of pages until the murder actually happens! Trust me!’ Well, I don’t trust the author, so I gave up. The first hundred pages were table setting, foreshadowing and buildup, with no payoff. And that lack of payoff was what caused me to give up.

If the pacing was bad, the plot flat out didn’t exist. Going back to the whole ‘Trust me!’ complaint from earlier, the author included a ton of characterization and setting descriptions, but left out anything which can resemble plot.

The word ‘plot’ is defined by wikipedia as follows: ‘Plot refers to the sequence of events inside a story which affect other events through the principle of cause and effect.’ Well, for the first hundred pages this book contains a slew of unrelated scenes which do not relate to one another in the cause-and-effect sort of way which generally entails a story unfolding, meaning there was no plot. The only thing which does happen is the main character getting drunk with his not-friends. Repeatedly.

In those hundred pages the author includes little phrases like ‘one day I would realize that this was foreshadowing’ or ‘I eventually learned that this was a plot point,’ as a fig leaf to assuage the need for plot. Well, guess what? Metatextual dictations by the narrator spoken directly to the reader do not count as plot, they count as fatty, lazy writing.

I like mystery novels. I’ve read hundreds of them. I’ve read Golden Age noir, Agatha Cristie, Conan Doyle, Rex Stout, and god knows how many cozies. I’ve watched countless mystery tv shows and movies. I know how mysteries work. I mean this in the best possible way, but the author of this book needs to brush up on how mysteries work. You do not, for example, string along your reader for hundreds of pages with bad pacing and absent plot.

I think the author has the potential to be a fantastic mystery novelist is she buckled down and read a few dozen mystery novels and developed the formula. I wanted to love this because I loved the prose, but the plot and pacing just was bad.

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