Monday, January 27, 2014

#LARMonth: Review-itas

The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Donna Tartt's The Secret History is one of those sleeper hits of the reading world.  A cult classic.  I have had it on my bookshelf for years, but every time I picked it up, I was reminded of that Johnathon Jackson movie The Skulls, and would put it back down immediately.  Then Long-Awaited Reads month came up and the book came up in my library audiobook queue, and it seemed like perfect timing!

The Secret History is about a group of college students at a tiny, expensive but not elite, school in New Hampshire.  They kill one of their classmates halfway through the novel (though we know they do this act at the very beginning of the book), so there's a lot of tense, disturbing, horrible build-up to the murder and then a lot of tense, disturbing, horrible aftermath.  It's like Crime & Punishment, except with more people and no real redemption.

I admit that I didn't really care for this book.  I appreciated it on an intellectual, objective level.  Tartt is a craftswoman, building up the pressure like a volcano until even the reader is gritting her teeth and gripping the steering wheel as scenes and events are recounted.  But I found the book long and tedious, with zero likeable characters and too many Greek quotes and comments about sentence structure.  I'm glad to have finally read it, but it was a tough one for me to get through.  Definitely one of those books that I stand on the other side of the majority on.

Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym
Jane and Prudence is another book I took down from my shelf for Long-Awaited Reads Month, though I haven't had it quite so long as The Secret History.  However, I have enjoyed the Pym novels I've read and I do want to read more and more of her, so I was glad to move from The Secret History to something a bit lighter and more fun.  Though if you have read Pym, you know that even though her novels have a very subtle and witty humor, they also bring up a lot of wonderful points about what it's like to be a woman in different life stages.  Jane and Prudence is no exception to this.

Jane is a middle-aged vicar's wife, just moved to a new small town and a bit intimidated by the people she meets there.  Her younger friend Prudence is 29 and approaching spinsterhood, though she doesn't seem too concerned about it.  Jane wants to match Prudence up with an eligible widower, but other characters have different ideas.

It's a short, easy to read book without any terrible events or huge climax, which is really just what one wants sometimes.  And, in typical Pym fashion, this is done with wonderful commentary on the small, seemingly inconsequential matters that can define a life and many of our everyday interactions:

[After Jane was served one egg and one slice of bacon, and her husband was served two of each, with the waitress explaining that "A man needs eggs!"]
Nicholas accepted his two eggs and bacon and the implication that his needs were more important than his wife's with a certain amount of complacency. 

One's married friends were too apt to assume that one had absolutely nothing to do when not at the office.  A flat with no husband didn't seem to count as a home.  

Indeed, there seemed to be little for the ladies to do but observe each other's hats, for their voices were seldom heard...their comments amounted to very little and were soon disposed of and even made to seem slightly ridiculous by the men.
 

14 comments:

  1. I've read a few chapters of Tartt's Goldfinch, and had to put it down because it wasn't quite pulling me in. I really wanted to love it. Everyone else does. But it just wouldn't work for me. She writes beautiful though, and like you mention, she crafts her stories very well. But some spark is still missing.

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  2. I have never read Tartt either. People are always telling me I should, and I do have The Secret History on my TBR, but it just hasn't clicked for me yet.

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  3. I stand with you. We may be a minority, but we are right. I agree with all of your comments on Secret History. I only read it to the end in the hopes that the characters would suffer the painful deaths they all deserved. I was pleased when a few of them did. ;-)

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    1. Haha, and the rest lived long, miserable lives?

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  4. Ah, well, no book is for everyone. My mother recently picked up The Goldfinch at a store and fell in love at first sentence, so I've been trying to talk her into giving The Secret History another try. If it's any consolation to you, she absolutely hated it -- way worse than you.

    (I'm sad though. I love The Secret History. It reliably fills me with dreadful suspense, no matter how often I reread it.)

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    1. It definitely filled me with dreadful suspense! I felt my blood pressure rise every time Bunny came on the scene. But, that did not lead to me enjoying the read.

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  5. But her characters aren't supposed to be likeable, only believable, so doesn't that mean that she did what she did well, only that it doesn't necessarily make for an enjoyable reading experience? I actually don't remember much of my experience of reading The Secret History - beyond the gobbling it up part - but I think there's something to be said for characters who get under the reader's skin all the same.

    Agreed completely on the layers in Barbara Pym's novels: that commentary manages to bloom beneath the prose, so that you can delve into it, or not, depending on your reading mood.

    Sooo wish I had joined in with LAR month: hopefully next time!

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    2. Yes, I can't imagine how Tartt was able to spend so long a time with such horrible people. I couldn't! and I agree- objectively, this book was very well-written, white knuckled suspense. But... I did not really enjoy it.

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    3. And what a beautiful way to describe Pym! Absolutely true :)

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    4. Heheh. That reminds me of an interview that I heard recently with Katrina Onstad about how difficult she found it to be spending so much time with the main character of her most recent novel (Everybody Has Everything) because she found her so dislikeable (aspects of her, anyway): human but dislikeable. Probably not a book that you would enjoy either, and understandably so! (Though it does raise interesting issues about motherhood and social pressures women experience in that regard and in the workplace.)

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  6. I don't like all of Pym's work, but I did love this one. I read it in 2007 (I can't believe it was that long ago!) and wrote about it. If you'd like to read it:
    http://lettersfromahillfarm.blogspot.com/2007/10/book-reportjane-and-prudence.html

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  7. I'm sorry you didn't like The Secret History! I actually know quite a few people who didn't love it, so I think there's a quiet maybe-not-minority of folks who didn't love it. I personally do love it and I've reread it once, too. Objectively, I know there are quite a few issues with it, but I still really enjoy it. I also LOVE that cover! And this line in your review: "It's like Crime & Punishment, except with more people and no real redemption." Perfect.

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  8. I didn't actually know anything about the Tartt before reading your post (is that bad, as a reader?) From what you've described I think I might find it a little tedious also, though I'd definitely give it a go. Still to get to Pym; I love the quotes you've included.

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