Reading Diary: Jan. 28-Feb. 3

9780241982884One of the fun things about my job is that, as part of the reading consultation that precedes our bespoke book subscription service, a lot of people tell me what their favourite book is. The Secret History turns up frequently. (If you’re interested, so do Sapiens, All the Light We Cannot See, and the works of Jane Austen, these last usually referred to in aggregate as opposed to individually.) Honestly, who can blame anyone for loving The Secret History? Tartt’s signature combination—an almost obsessive accretion of physical and emotional detail, and the distinct intellectual coolness of her phrasing—is seductive and very effective; never mind that she’s not quite managed to replicate it in the years and books since. Perhaps that’s because her setting, in this first outing, is the perfect backdrop for that kind of style: her overanalysing, overprivileged, overeducated New England college kids, with their total inability to recognise their self-centeredness and the monstrosity of what they eventually do in the name of intellectual curiosity. It is almost an anti-intellectual book, in the sense that it shows you so very clearly how easy and how fatal it is to lose sight of consensus reality when you live much of your life in your head. Two things stick out enormously on rereading: one, the extent to which Tana French’s The Likeness is an homage to this book (it’s not exactly hard to notice the parallels, but a reread brings it all back: Henry and Daniel are basically the same character), and two, the pacing issues that somewhat marred The Goldfinch are evident here, too, in utero as it were. The Secret History is a brilliantly plotted book, but it is extremely luxurious, almost languid, in its transitions. In a way that’s what makes it so phenomenal: it manages to be a thriller and a page-turner while looking like exactly the opposite. But with the benefit of hindsight, you can trace that languidness right through to the occasional bagginess of Tartt’s later work.

51xgptmawcl-_sx321_bo1204203200_The Wanderers is actually the second book of a trilogy,  but you don’t need to have read the first to enjoy Tim Pears’s writing, or to become fully immersed in the world he recreates. This volume is set in Devon and Cornwall in 1913, as Leo Sercombe is cast out of his home on the Prideaux estate in Devon for some crime which remains unspecified. (This is where having read book one, The Horseman, might be handy, but as the plot of The Wanderers doesn’t concern itself overly with what happened in the past, I found it didn’t noticeably dim my understanding of the book.) Pears gives the reader two perspectives: Leo’s, as he journeys across the West Country, making his way slowly towards Penzance, and that of Lottie, Lord Prideaux’s daughter and Leo’s former playmate. Leo’s sections read like slow-motion picaresque in a minor key, with awe and respect at the beauty of the natural world taking the place that humour and the grotesque usually occupy in that genre. He spends time with “gypsies” (Romany travelers), Cornish tin miners, and a vagabond named Rufus who served in the Second Boer War. Lottie’s story, meanwhile, follows a Bildungsroman arc, as her father remarries and Lottie fights to pursue an intellectual fascination with anatomy and dissection. What saves this arc from being a tired “feisty-girl” trope is Pears’s ability to express, sensitively and subtly, Lottie’s deep grief at Leo’s disappearance, and her isolation from her father and from any friends her own age. His writing, both about nature and about the complexities of the human heart, is delicate and precise and always slightly oblique; he is the master of presenting a situation or a piece of dialogue without comment, and letting the reader conclude what she will. I’m shocked that I haven’t read his work before now.

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Jamie Quatro’s debut novel, Fire Sermon, does something that I have never seen in a mainstream contemporary novel: it introduces an objective moral dimension to a fairly standard emotional dilemma. In other words, Quatro’s protagonist Maggie believes strongly and passionately in God, and also enters into an emotional affair (which, don’t you worry, becomes very physical) with a fellow writer, James. What saves this book from being another novel about sad white writers in bad marriages (thanks to Roxane Gay for that spot-on category) is precisely the presence of God in it. It’s not a novel that requires its reader to believe in God; it does require its reader to believe that other people can believe in God – intelligent, intellectual people – sincerely and without irony. Quatro’s adulterous lovers are drawn to each other first for the quality of one another’s minds: if your idea of flirtation is verbal sparring about metaphysical poetry and the Western apophatic tradition, then you’re going to find Fire Sermon very sexy. This also allows for a novel where adultery actually matters. The stakes are much higher, and the agony more pronounced, here than they strictly need to be; these people suffer not because society makes them, but because they want to hold themselves to a standard of behaviour and feeling that is incompatible with most of the other things that they want. That kind of suffering, the kind you enter with open eyes, has a very different quality to the more socially-ordained kind; you are not a victim of it in the same way. Faith is a hard habit to shake, and some people are built for it; consider Flannery O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted” South. In addition to this deep sense of conviction, Fire Sermon is also richly allusive (C.S. Lewis! T.S. Eliot! Jane Gardam! Maggie Nelson! Sharon Olds!) I want more books about Christians like this: confused, fucked-up, questioning, questing.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: It’s nice to have read a book this week that’s just come out (as opposed to one that’ll be out next month), so that I can recommend it immediately. Reading ahead of release dates has its advantages and its disadvantages.

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17 thoughts on “Reading Diary: Jan. 28-Feb. 3

  1. I must be one of the few people who did not like The Secret History much. The bagginess of it, as you say, and having to read at such length about self-absorbed characters who really weren’t going to change all that much…

  2. cindy fried says:

    Secret History is defo in my top ten and I feel so envious of people who are about to dive in for the first time. But I also loved the Goldfinch, which needed severe trimming near the end – too much Amsterdam, Donna.

    The Little Friend I didn’t expect to like as much because the critics were harsh, but guess what? Loved it for a slice of Southern Gothic without too much plot.

    Would be interested on a post on how you do the magic after the consultation on the personalised book subscription, or enough of a peep behind the curtain to sharpen up our ‘choosing the right books for the right time’ skills.

    • Aaaaahhh, that would be giving the game away! (Actually, I’d really like to do a post on how the magic happens – perhaps I’ll line one up for the spring.)

  3. I’m just about to re-read The Secret History as it is a book group choice for February. It must be at least fifteen years since I first read it and I am fascinated to see whether it has lived up to my memories.

  4. I’m one of those fans of The Secret History. I haven’t read it in years but I find the characters come to mind often. I’m glad you liked it! I do recall her going on and on, but all that description has kept the book very vivid in my mind – and sometimes I can barely recall books I read last month.

    • Totally agree – it stands out precisely because she takes such care to create an environment around her characters. (It was also fascinating to read again after having read The Rules of Attraction, which gave me a totally different slant on Hampden College, and American colleges in the ’80s in general.)

  5. Oh, The Secret History! A book about which I have lots of controversial opinions! I actually don’t think it’s Tartt’s strongest, although I agree that it’s her best-structured novel. I’ve always loved the much-maligned Little Friend, and I actually think The Goldfinch has more to it as well. I think the real triumph in The Secret History is the depiction of Bunny and his family, rather than the plotting. And yes, The Likeness is definitely a homage – but I think it poses more interesting questions (Daniel is a much more intriguing antagonist than Henry, in my opinion), and has a more strongly-developed secondary cast, and so I like it better.

    • Definitely agree with you about The Likeness – I think I prefer it to The Secret History for precisely the reasons you mention. (And Daniel is a much more interesting, and much scarier, character than Henry.)

  6. So interested to hear about your re-read of The Secret History. I read it when it was first released, loved it but haven’t re-read. Commented on another blog today that given I couldn’t remember the fine detail, it was probably time for a reread – am wondering though if I’ll be comparing to her subsequent novels.

    • Almost certainly, though you may find it stands up rather well. I think I did love it less the second time round, although I still found it very engaging.

  7. I’m probably overdue a re-read of The Secret History, which I just read the once in 2006. The Goldfinch is much the more impressive achievement, I think, but Donna Tartt is always worth reading.

    Keen to read Fire Sermon.

      • The religious element makes it a must-read for me. I downloaded it from NetGalley but was very disappointed to find the publisher had put the wrong file up; it was some other novel starting with ‘F’! So I’ll have to find it from the library sometime instead.

  8. ” It’s not a novel that requires its reader to believe in God; it does require its reader to believe that other people can believe in God – intelligent, intellectual people – sincerely and without irony.” Yes!!

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