Recently, I finished reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt. It’s about a college student by the name of Richard Pappen going through the process of starting college at a remote institution. He finds a group of people and a subject that consumes him. In the end, they get involved with the murder a fellow classmate.
I read Tartt’s other book The Goldfinch a few years ago. I remember it fairly well. It’s about a boy, Theo Decker. The book starts with the death of his mother. The entire book is about Theo struggling to find a sense of normalcy in his life. Ultimately, he finds solace in what life has to offer.
Reading two things from the same author is something that helps me see how to improve my own writing. Seeing another writer’s progression suggests a way forward. My direction will probably be an amalgam of the authors I like best. I thought a lot about the differences and everything the author carried across both books.
Both protagonists are chronic malcontents. They’re unhappy in their lives. They cling to fictional versions of everything that has happened to them. Richard lies to everyone about his life back home in Californa. Theo clings to the remnants of his perfect life with his mother, in any way possible. That has do with the way they romanticize the lives of others and the past.
Romanticizing something imbues it with qualities that are rarely apparent when something actually happens. I think of romanticizing the past as embellishing it to feel some comfort that wasn’t there in the moment. Seeing the lives of others as better, whether that’s the truth or not, feeds into the self-fulfilling prophecy that your life sucks. Digging a well of self-pity rarely gives you a good feeling. I’ll admit this opens up a lot story possibilities. And sometimes that, above mentioned thought process strangles us. That’s where these stories start. Then something shakes everything up. Richard is always in that strangling thought process. Theo is too young to be disaffected without something going catastrophically wrong, the death of his mother.
Frequently, Tartt casts characters with a dreamy air. Characters like Pippa and Camilla, as well as scenes. Sleepy in an ethereal light. That’s done with a few different elements. Elements like cigarette smoke, drawn shades, night time, dense fog, pure light, and drug induced states. That lends a slight fictional air to the proceedings, like lightening in Frankenstein. The environment lends a sense to what’s about to happen or has already happened. A drugged daze when the character feels lost. Cold when the character feels alone. Dream-like sights for the people we love romantically. A straight forward translation of a dreamy woman or guy. That nonetheless adds a unique dimension to her stories. The pictures and events described are picturesque and always interesting. Making the scenes simple wouldn’t work very well to translate the protagonist’s mindset. Saying a character is stuck with their head in the clouds isn’t the same as making it felt on nearly every page. Might I point out that this is very similar to how writers see the world. We examine mundane events to shed light on the human experience. It’s fascinating to see the part Tartt shares with us.
The protagonists love the unattainable. Pippa or Camilla depending on the book is the one Theo or Richard love. Not exactly them as people, but they fall in love with the idea of them. Theo is attracted to his first love and the possibility that if everything was different, they could be together. Richard loves the woman who is incapable of loving him. Camilla is in love with the strength of another. “We love in others what we most lack.” Richard H Stoddard.
Richard dreams of Camilla and is dissatisfied with any other person. Theo knows it’ll never work with Pippa. They are broken in much the same way, and that can never work. Love of the unattainable is a continuation of their malcontent mindset. As you can probably tell, I’m masking a slight disgust and jealousy throughout this post.
The protagonist goes through the daily motions of life wishing for more. Theo attends school despite the turbulence in his life. He finds a job despite his obstacles. He gets engaged and on. Richard faithfully completes his assignment. He misses classes every now and then, but things work out. They find a way to keep from worrying, so the actual story has time to play out.
Drug high states are used for dramatic effect. That contributes to the dreamy quality present throughout the books. The descriptions of their experiences are interesting to read. I wonder how factual they are. It would be not that difficult to write from research and fictionalizing the rest. I suspect that everyone’s reaction would be slightly different. And drugged out experiences can be found if you look for it, as with probably everything these days. The characters take uppers, downers, and psychedelics throughout. The Secret Histroy features smoking and drinking. Theo does a ton of drugs with his friend Boris.
I’ll highlight a few differences. I really didn’t pay much attention to this while reading. The Secret History takes places during two years of Richard’s college existence. Identifying the time setting was tricky. It happened sometime be 1978 and the 1990’s. The Goldfinch follows Theo from middle school through to adulthood. It happens very close to the present at the end. Richard experiences guilt, and Theo deals with grief. Both of them never feel they fit in where they are. That’s something I’ve felt, and I really struggled to find my place in this world. When I started writing, that feeling waned a little. The more I pursue it, the more it feels more like I’ve found my place.
Hampden College, the setting of The Secret History is as far from New York, Las Vegas, Amsterdam as you can get. The Goldfinch goes on in Greenwich, NY, a suburb of Las Vegas, and Amsterdam. The Secret History is more action based but sometimes feels like a series of conversations in dream-like space. The Goldfinch is entirely internal with everything else taking a backseat. Richard, the protagonist of The Secret History tries finding the best path forward to achieve his goals despite everything thrown in his way. Theo accepts that his life will never be as he has expected. He has basically given up because he was broken at such a young age. Theo does his best to gain the approval of others. When he goes after his own ends, things backfire.
I enjoyed reading both books. Any fan of literary should read them, if you haven’t already. Their experiences shed light on what we have going for us. The stories are superb works of fiction, and say something as it was never said before. The Secret History and The Goldfinch.
Title photo credit: Shiro hatori on Unsplash