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Donna Tartt won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her novel “The Goldfinch.” For our May Readers’ Review, we chose the author’s first novel, “The Secret History.” Published in 1992, it has been described as not a who-dunnit but a why-dunnit. It begins with a murder. Bunny is dead — at the bottom of a ravine near a private college in Vermont. His closest friends on campus are responsible. That includes Richard, the narrator, who recounts how he falls in with a group of wealthy students who engage in cult rituals and how their actions lead to tragedy for them all.
- Rachel Louise Snyder Professor of creative writing and journalism at American University; author of "Fugitive Denim" and the novel "What We've Lost Is Nothing."
- Eric Rutkow Attorney and historian; author of "American Canopy."
- Emily Jeanne Miller Author; her first novel, "Brand New Human Being," was published in 2012.
Read A Featured Excerpt
Excerpted from “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt. Copyright © 2014 by Donna Tartt and reprinted with permission of Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. An impressionable young man becomes entwined with a group of rich students at an elite Vermont college and they commit murder. That's the storyline of this month's "Reader's Review" of "The Secret History," by Donna Tartt. Joining me in this studio to talk about the novel, author and American University Professor, Rachel Louise Snyder, author and historian Eric Rutkow and novelist Emily Jeanne Miller. I'm sure many of you will want to join the conversation. Give us a call at 800-433-8850.
MS. DIANE REHMSend us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. I'm glad you all are here.
DR. RACHEL LOUISE SNYDERThank you for having me.
MR. ERIC RUTKOWThank you. Pleasure to be here.
MS. EMILY JEANNE MILLERThank you.
REHMGood to have you. Rachel, I'm going to ask you, please, to read the first paragraph of the book, "The Secret History."
SNYDERThe snow in the mountains was melting, and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He'd been dead for 10 days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history. State troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter. The college closed, the dye factory in Hampton shut down, people coming from New Hampshire, upstate New York, as far away as Boston.
REHMAnd there we have it. You set up the whole story for us. How does this first paragraph make us feel about this novel?
SNYDERIt's fantastic. You know, you do get the whole story there, and I read this 22 years ago, when it came out. I re-read it again, recently, for the show and reading it as a writer, I was sort of blown away, because I thought, she's breaking all the rules in that first paragraph, right? She's doing exactly what you're told not to do, which is give it all away. And you have – by the time you get to the end of the first section, you understand how Bunny has died, you understand that it's his friends who killed him. And yet, you're only halfway through the book.
SNYDERAnd it – it right away made me think of that famous example from Hitchcock, right, where he describes the difference between shock and tension. And he says, shock is when you have a scene from a restaurant, for example – a couple having a romantic dinner, and suddenly there's an explosion. Right? That's shock. And tension is that same scene, couple in the restaurant, except suddenly the camera pans down to underneath the table and you see a bag, and you hear tick, tock, tick, tock.
SNYDERThat's what this book does, I think.
REHMSo you love this book?
SNYDERWell, you know, I love it, but I – as a writer, I appreciate the architecture of it, I think. That's – I don't – I try not to talk about what I didn't like or did like. I try to talk about how it's working and how it's cobbled together. And whether or not that's rendered, sort of, successfully.
REHMEric, how did you feel about this book?
RUTKOWI would say I have a similar reaction in a lot of ways, and there's so much virtuosic writing happening throughout, that it's hard not to notice it. But to talk about the intro just for a second, because I have a somewhat different reaction to the intro. To me, when I was reading it, it feels like the old rule – you have a paragraph to get their attention and about five pages to hold them. And so here, what we get is the murder. Someone's dead, right at the outset. Because if we don't have that, what we're going to have is about 50 pages inside the head of a narrator before we even get inside of the first bit of intrigue, which is who are the other characters and why do we want to know about them?
REHMTell me about this narrator, Richard.
RUTKOWSo, the narrator is Richard Papen. And he's, in some ways, I think, a lot of readers would think of him sort of like a Nick Carraway, from The Great Gatsby, because he's a bit of an outsider looking in, but he also becomes very central to the action as time goes on. And he is sort of an outsider from northern California, grown up in the middle class, and he finds himself inside this world of privilege. And he's a strange narrator for a number of reasons. He can be reliable and unreliable. He's knowingly creating a bit of artifice for us.
RUTKOWHe's consciously storytelling, and so he's holding back and providing at the same time. And he's a brilliant observer, which is partly because Donna Tartt's such a good writer. And yet, he's not all that interesting at times, at the same moment, which is a strange contradiction there.
REHMYeah, he sort of – he wants to be part of the group, and yet he wants to keep some part of himself within himself for his own safety, for his own sanity. Emily Jeanne Miller, how did you feel about this book?
MILLERI had a bit of a different take than these two. I had a really hard time relating to this book, I have to say. I do find her a very talented writer. And she can definitely turn a phrase and plant suspense. She's really good at creating suspense. But I found these characters so cold and really hard to relate to. No one was I able to really sink my teeth into.
REHMI'm gonna use an even stronger word. I found each of these characters despicable.
MILLERI would agree with you on that word.
REHMI did not feel any warmth, any kindness, any love, any sympathy toward – and she doesn't want us to. I think that's part of, as you say Eric, her brilliance, but boy, she sure put me off.
RUTKOWMaybe she's overly successful in that front, then.
REHMWell, you know, these are characters who almost seem without conscience.
SNYDERWell, I have to say, it does make all of us look like fine, upstanding moral people. But I also think that's part of the success of the book. You know, in contemporary literature, you get – generally get very likeable characters. They're funny, they're faulty in charming ways, they're worthy of our empathy and our sympathy, even. And I think that's what she has managed to do is she has a gaggle of characters who are ugly, who are amoral, and who are not meant to be liked.
SNYDERAnd yet, we read to the end of the book. We read to the very last page.
REHMWhy? Why do you think we do?
SNYDERBecause I think that's the – it speaks to the quality of her writing, I think, first of all. I think it's an exercise in, in complicated – I don't know, that's a tough question. In complicated characters, I guess, and complicated moralities. And I think there is this moment that you have, as a reader sometimes, where you think, well gee, I went to college. I started college.
SNYDERThey seem very reasonable.
SNYDERAnd then they veer off into a place that is unfamiliar terrain, and yet, and yet I found myself saying, what if I was in that situation? What would I do? Right? It speaks to the power of a cult, in some sense.
RUTKOWSo, to return to this question of why do you stay there till the end? Because I was wondering the same thing, at times, for myself. I'm thinking, why do I keep turning these pages?
SNYDERIt's not because Diane Rehm told us to.
RUTKOWNo, no, no. I mean, in some sense, sure. But not in this case. What I think is -- she's, as a reader, you're wondering, morally, where is the moral judgment coming in? Will there – I mean, you have a bunch of characters that feel amoral. Are they going to get off scott free? Are we going to hold on to this sort of amoral sensibility till the very last page, or is the hammer of some kind of sense of collective justice going to come down? How does this resolve for us as readers, and for the characters.
RUTKOWAnd of course, in the end, the ending is a strange ambiguous ending that seems very definitive, but the more and more, at least for me, I think about it, we still have a narrator who walks away completely scott free with maybe his guilt, and nothing more.
MILLERYeah, I don't think there's a lot of comeuppance for any of them. And there was one moment that particularly struck me, when they're all in the room at the inn, at the end, and – or, toward the end, and Richard gets shot. And he looks down – he says, I've been shot. And there's a hole in his shirt, and he thinks, my Paul Smith shirt. There's this obsession with wealth and the trappings of wealth and the manners and customs of the wealthy, that he seems just completely taken with.
REHMAnd that, I think, is why I had such problems with this novel. Not only the wealth. I mean, Francis, for example, has this huge villa-like house nearby, where they all retreat to and Richard very much wants to be a part of this group. He's on the outside. He's created a fiction about himself, because he so wants to be a part of this group. He grew up poor. He went to not a fancy prep school. He managed to get into this college on scholarship. We presume the others come from tons of money. But the amount of alcohol that is consumed each day, I found myself totally non-believing. How in the world did they get through their studies?
MILLERWell, not particularly well, it would appear. Unfortunately, I think that it's not completely unbelievable. I do think college kids drinking scotch is a little less likely. At least my college experience was a little more bad beer out of plastic cups than, you know, scotch out of snifters, or whatever they were drinking all the time. But, I didn't find that completely out of the realm of possibility.
REHMYou did not. How about you?
RUTKOWCertainly for the first half of the book, it felt very plausible. By the end, we have full blown drug addictions and alcoholism all over the place. So that's somewhat of a different issue. But I think I would agree with Emily, in thinking through this, that there is a certain amount of realism to the college experience. Not necessarily to the way the characters behave, because they, themselves, feel like they were ripped out of, to me, sort of, 1920s England, maybe.
RUTKOWWhich is part of why – this is certainly not social realism as a murder story. This is some other category, because we have a setting in the 1980s, but we have a story that's taking place out of time.
REHMEric Rutkow. He's an attorney and historian, author of "American Canopy." And we'll take a short break here. I hope you will join us. Questions, comments, 800-433-8850.
REHMAnd welcome back. Our Readers' Review for this month is Donna Tartt's first novel titled "The Secret History." It takes place in a small college. And indeed Donna Tartt herself went to a small college. She happened to have gone to college, I think, with someone to whom she dedicated the book, Brett Easton Ellis. Do you know his work?
SNYDERA little bit. I mean, much has been made of the relationship -- you know, the friendship between the two of them and her having Bennington as a sort of stand-in for Hampden College.
REHMThe college she's writing about here. We've got a number of callers. But Eric, what does this book say to you and to us about class in society?
RUTKOWWell, there's -- at the center of this book feels like an obsession with class. Certainly all of Richard's actions are driven by it. And so to me you can almost feel like he's behaving, it's almost coltish, this class aspiration that essentially it's college. It's supposed to be classless. The whole idea is everybody comes in and they're all equal. And yet what we have here replicated is this strange sort of class hierarchy that's dictating most of the actions. It dictates how the character's behaving, why. It's all about for them superficial appearances and what Richard wants in.
REHMAnd what about this aloof professor Julian? What's he all about? Who does he represent? Who or what?
MILLERHe clearly represents some sort of guru to them and something that they're all looking for. Some sort of transcendence or deepening or connection. Although it seems almost more like disconnection than connection, I would say. I did read -- Donna Tartt said in an interview that I read that this book was about altered states. So that was...
MILLER...and drugs and the Dionysian ritual I suppose, which they all -- this is, you know, what propels the whole calamity along.
SNYDER…bacchanal. I mean, I think Julian is a father figure to them. You know, they're very isolated. None of them have parents who are involved in their lives at all. And so he takes on that role. I kept thinking, what would my administration say if I said, you know, I'm just going to take the six students for the next four years.
REHMYeah, yeah, yeah.
SNYDERBut I think he's in some sense the most superficial of them all. Because when he finds out what they've done, he disappears, right. He doesn't call the police.
REHMHe just walks off.
RUTKOWWell, and there's an argument that it appears that he's the leader of this group or what really does feel like a cult, but in the end it turns out he's sort of a false leader because the real leadership is coming from Henry from within. And there's a tension there between those two because he has this feeling of a father figure. And yet by the end of the novel we see he is sort of let go of all responsibility of the entire situation, disappeared perhaps to become advisor to some sort of prince in some far off land. And Henry is the one pulling the strings.
REHMAnd how does he do that?
RUTKOWWell, that's sort of the magic at the center of this book is, how does he do that and why do we go along? Why does Richard go along? Why does it feel compelling for these insane actions happening over and over?
REHMWe have to talk about Bunny and who Bunny is and why Bunny becomes a victim.
MILLERWell, I thought about Bunny a lot as well. And one thing that struck me is that Bunny is actually the only character among all of these ice cold characters who feels any remorse for this murder. And...
REHMThe first murder.
MILLERThe first murder of the Vermont...
REHMWell, you need to say, there are two murders.
MILLERThere are two murders, but one being his.
RUTKOWWell, I would actually say I actually disagree with you on that.
MILLERYou think he didn't?
RUTKOWI don't think he feels any remorse. In fact, I think this is where the amorality shows up in (word?) .
RUTKOWHe's just upset he was left out.
MILLERWell, he's -- at least he shows concern. I don't think there's any...
REHMHe shows concern because, as Eric says, he's left out but he also wants to make money...
MILLEROh, that's true.
REHM...off the fact that he knows that there was a first murder. And that's why they done him in. I mean, that's all there is to it. But Bunny is not a very likeable character.
MILLERNo. From the very beginning, he's not. That lunch that he takes Richard out to, he's actually despicable, to use your word again.
REHMWhat does he do?
MILLERWell, one part that I remember particularly is he sort of harasses the waiter who he decides is gay and says all sorts of terrible things about the waiter.
RUTKOWSo almost dines and dashes.
REHMHe dines and leaves Richard with the bill.
SNYDERThat's right. And there's -- the way he's even described is -- I can't find this section of the book but it's -- Tartt describes him as seeming to have substance. But when you get up close it's like he's an apparition, right. That's how -- her description of him.
SNYDERAnd I was struck by this moment towards the end of the book during the search party where, you know, suddenly many, many people, students, you know, they all are -- have this kind of false embodiment of caring, right. Suddenly Bunny is, oh my god, we loved him. He was such an important part of our community. And there's all these townspeople who turn up for the search party.
SNYDERAnd there's a moment where Richard and a couple of the other groups stand on top of a hill and they look down at the search party. And it says -- this is -- can I read this one sentence?
SNYDERIt was a large assembly but as the three of us looked down at it from the top of the rise, it seemed oddly muffled and small in the great expanse of snow. And I thought, you know, this is like -- this is what the gods do in the Iliad, right, where they look down and they see the smallness of the people and the smallness of the war. And they're gods. They have -- you would think that they would be able to change the fate of, you know, the war of Achilles, of -- you know, and they can't. They can't do anything. And so that seemed a really pivotal sentence for me in that sense.
REHMAnd Eric, you've got a spot there to read about when Henry realizes that Bunny is talking.
RUTKOWOh well, this is sort of when Henry realizes that Richard is in on it, that he knows what's going on.
REHMAnd how does he know what's going on? Because...
RUTKOW...because -- right, because Bunny started talking to people (unintelligible) ...
REHMLet me hear that portion.
RUTKOWSure. So beginning here -- and this is Henry talking initially. After all we hadn't confided in you, he said. His gaze on mine was steady, intense. You could've stopped us at any time you wanted and yet you didn't. Why? Henry, what in god's name have you done, he smiled? You tell me, he said. And the horrible thing was, somehow that I did know you killed somebody, I said, didn't you? He looked at me for a moment and then to my utter, utter surprise he leaned back in his chair and laughed. Good for you, he said. You're just as smart as I thought you were.
REHMUm, um ,um. Tell us about that first murder.
MILLERWell, they stumble upon a -- is it a chicken farmer -- who they take pains to note is a Vermonter. I thought there was a lot of strange hostility toward the people who live in the town. They would always say, well he's a Vermonter, which was strange. But, yeah, so they stumble upon him and kill him. I'm not sure (unintelligible) ...
SNYDERThey mutilate him...
SNYDER...we learn later. We -- that's sort of revealed slowly.
REHMBut why did they kill him?
RUTKOWThis is the midst of this bacchanal they're throwing together. Just -- well, it's really just the four that are remaining so it's not Bunny and it's not Richard. It's the other main characters. And it turns...
REHMRight. The twins Camilla and Charles.
RUTKOWFrancis and Henry.
REHMFrancis and Henry.
RUTKOWAnd so the first half of the book is sort of structured around this, what is going on among this click? Why are they so tight? And it turns out that they're pursuing a Dionysian ritual that they've sort of been not -- sort of put up to by Julian, by the professor, not intentionally but it's at the core of some of the preachings he's been making. And they pursue it through drugs, through alcohol. We don't really know. We never get a full account of what happens. But at the end of it, a farmer is dead and quite horribly mutilated.
SNYDERYou know, Dionysus is -- people know him as, you know, the god of wine and drink and whatever. But he's also the god of epiphany, right. And he's also -- I think, in some ways Henry is a stand-in for him because he -- even once he's gone he keeps reappearing, right, to several of the characters. He reappears and disappears. And so they talk about this ritual as having not been experienced by anybody in thousands of years. And so they want to do it. And of course the modern means we have of doing that is, you know, through alcohol and drugs and...
REHMHe surely comes off rude, aloof and mysterious. I mean, he's -- when Richard the outsider first meets Henry, Henry barely acknowledges him. I mean, I don't know. I'm having real trouble with these characters.
SNYDERHe's also the only one who's authentically wealthy. Everyone else has the trappings of wealth but they don't have wealth.
REHMEven Francis with...
SNYDERYeah, Francis who is forced -- who is gay and forced to marry a woman to keep any of his family money.
REHMYeah. All right. I'm going to open the phones. Let's hear what our listeners have to say. First to Toni in Kensington, Md. Hi, you're on the air.
TONIHi. You've already addressed the alcohol issue. But I wanted to make the point that recently we've heard this argument, oh, which is worse, pot and smoking weed or alcohol? This book shows you alcohol hands down is the most destructive. I mean, I don't think you need even assess their characters because they were so totally -- like you've already mentioned, alcohol consumption was around the clock.
REHMIt was. And as I say, I don't know how they got any work done, any grades done. They were constantly getting sick or sleeping all day. Is this an honest reflection of any college that you know?
SNYDERThis was my high school. This was me in high school absolutely. But of course I dropped out and then went back and got a GED years later. So I can really relate to this but I clearly didn't have the brainpower to continue on with my classes.
RUTKOWTo me it sort of felt like it was a strange critique coming at two different directions. One was -- we often think of the classics provide enlightenment and salvation. But here they lead to murder and chaos. And then on the other hand there's sort of a very what feels like a pointy critique of where colleges go, because we haven't really talked about -- there's a lot of minor characters. And they're mostly doing other drugs. They're mostly doing a lot of cocaine and sort of speed and uppers and part drugs. And they're sort of floating around. They're not even pretending to do work or be interested in anything but the party.
RUTKOWAnd so we have what feels like Donna Tartt is sort of aiming her critique or satire however you want to describe it, in all directions at once. So there's no salvation to be found in the classics but there's certainly no salvation in the future of the college experience.
REHMYou know, we talked on another occasion about the cost of college, the high cost of college and the high cost of debt that kids come out with. Well, you know, especially if too many of them these days are spending their time drinking, doing drugs, I mean, do you believe that's what's happening now?
SNYDERI don't. I mean, you know, I'm a professor at American University. And of course my students probably have their fun on the weekends as they should. But I think in general they're probably fairly serious. I think education is seen as a commodity and they're paying for a commodity.
SNYDERBut this is fiction, you know. It's not meant to be...
REHMIt's fiction, but I think it runs deep. Rachel Louise Snyder. She is professor of creating writing and journalism at American University. She's author of "Fugitive Denim" and the novel "What We've Lost is Nothing." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Maggie in Rochester, N.Y. Hi, you're on the air.
MAGGIEHi, good morning. I really like this book and I kept wanting to get back to it whenever I'd have to put it down. And many years ago I read "Crime and Punishment" by Dostoyevsky. And the main character -- what's his name? Is it Raskolnikov?
MAGGIEOkay. He murders this old lady and he's so tortured that he drives himself crazy because of that. And so I kept waiting for one of these characters in "The Secret History" to divulge the murder. I thought -- I kept waiting to see if it would go the same way as Raskolnikov. And I kind of thought Charles would be the one to do it but it didn't happen that way.
MAGGIEAt one point during the search for Bunny, Henry says this reminds him of Tolstoy. I've read some Tolstoy too but I couldn't make the connection. So I was wondering if you could.
REHMAnybody can you make the connection, Emily?
MILLERI don't know if I can make the connection but I noticed that also. And my impression was that it was these characters being pompous and affected by dropping the names of these authors and comparing their situation to, you know, grand literature, which I did not find their situation to be. So that was my take on it.
SNYDERYou know, I have to say, I read -- I don't know any Greek at all, right, so I took this all to be authentic in terms of their education. And I actually read an academic paper that talked about -- it actually said something like Donna Tartt's grasp of Greek is as much as Dan Brown's grasp of Biblical history. Like, that in fact the way these characters use the Greek in the book is not at all the way you would use it if you were speaking it as a classical language. And so there's a part of me that thinks she's -- it's an inside joke that she has with the characters.
REHMHuh, that's interesting because I think Claudia in Syracuse, N.Y. perhaps has a similar outlook. You're on the air.
CLAUDIAHi. Actually I think -- first off, I love the book. And I think it was very funny. I mean, it had a very droll wry sense of humor, very much like a David Sedaris type of sense of humor. And I don't think you're supposed to like the characters. I think you're supposed to see their actions as being absurd and over the top. And they're funny.
CLAUDIAI mean, if you look at it kind of maybe a step back like, for example, once he was shot and he looks down and he says, I've been shot. And all these things that happen, it just -- it's just funny because they're so caught up in the -- like the way -- you know, the niceties of how they think, you know, they want their lives to be, just they're not down to earth. And I just found the book to be very funny, as well as suspenseful and well written.
CLAUDIAAnd the other thing, in terms of the ending, I just had a completely different take on the ending. I -- as another comparison it kind of reminded me of like the final episode of Seinfeld where they -- kind of all these characters end up in a prison, not in an institutional prison, but in a prison of their own lack of achievement. Like the one place that Richard did not want to end up in the whole world was California. And that's where he ends up, is back in, like, this fake, sunshiny, you know, Southern California, you know, thousands of miles away.
REHMAnd indeed that is where Richard ends up. Short break here and when we come back, more of your calls, your comments. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMAnd for this month's "Reader's Review," we've chosen Donna Tartt's book, "The Secret History." I'm not sure I would choose it again, but it is a – it is quite a book. Now, I'll read you this email from Sally, who says I recognize the college as my alma mater, Bennington, which is where Donna Tartt went. Even to the mountain. I also recognize the rather weird faculty/student relationship, though I must add that the faculty/students affairs of my days at the college, in the 60s, were not quite as bizarre as in the book. At any rate, Sally says, what struck me about "The Secret History" is that the real villain is the professor. Do you agree with that?
SNYDERThat's an interesting read. I guess I would, actually, agree with that. I do think he is a very unreliable character, and I think he's all about, sort of, the outward appearance as hiding his true nature. And Richard, the narrator, talks about that later, how that was a shock to him, to learn that Julian was not what he purported to be. Exactly.
REHMSeemed to be. He sort of leads them to the cliff, and helps the push, but then walks away as though he's totally on his own. Steven writes, I never finished the novel. I created my own ending, in which the rest of the characters jump off the cliff, as well. The end. All right, let's go back to the phones to Joe in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Hi Joe.
JOEHi, Diane. How are you today?
REHMI'm good. Thank you.
JOEI don't really have a question. I have more of a comment.
JOEFor you and the panel. You were talking, at the beginning of the show, about whether the char -- about the characters and how you didn't necessarily like them. And I just kind of want to point out I think it's a – something we take for granted nowadays, in literature, where we feel we have to like the characters, even though there are many characters out there that we don't like, that we still find interesting. I point to, as an example, Draco Malfoy from the "Harry Potter" series. Cersei Lannister and Joffrey Baratheon from "Game of Thrones," and "A Song of Ice and Fire."
JOEAnd even the character of Connor from the Ubisoft game, "Assassin's Creed 3." These are all characters that we don't find interesting – or, we don't find likeable. There have been fair amount of criticism against them. Yet, we keep coming back for more. We want to see what they do. We want to see, almost, to see them be the worst characters they can be.
REHMEric, do you agree?
JOEAnd we do want to see what happens to them in the end.
RUTKOWSo, to a certain extent, there's a bit of difference here, which is that these aren't -- it's not as though there's a villain and a hero. In most of the works that were referenced there, you know, Harry Potter, we have a very clear hero.
RUTKOWIn "Game of Thrones," we have a very clear, well, I haven't gotten all the way through, so I don't really know. But with this, I think the issue is there is no one, necessarily, to cling to there. So Henry might be more interesting if he were pegged as a villain and Richard was a hero, but that's certainly not the dichotomy that we're dealing with.
REHMQuite right. Talk about Camilla and Charles, if you would. They're interesting characters.
MILLERI was just thinking about that. And especially in reference to characters being likeable or evil or whatever they are, I thought it was really interesting that at the end, we find out that they actually are sleeping together.
MILLERThey're twins. And there are a lot of indications and hints and shadows that maybe something funny's going on between them, throughout the novel. And I was thinking, well, clearly, it can't be that. You know, if we're being led to that the whole time. I thought maybe it was gonna turn out that they weren't even brother and sister. But no, they're sleeping together. And Charles is abusing her, basically. So that was very, very strange and offers no redemption for their characters at all. It also brought me to the idea of the women in the novel, I thought, were just treated so meanly. I mean, not by the other characters. I thought by the author. It struck me as almost misogynistic. There just wasn't a redeemed, a redeeming woman character. Even Camilla was just sort of a piece of fluff that was handed back and forth between Henry and her brother. And the other women were just completely uninteresting and unlikeable.
REHMAnd yet, she describes Camilla and Charles as being, you know, his pure blonde face, his hair, really quite attractive. And yet, there's this underlying something that you know is sort of strange or weird. What about Henry again? Is he a psychopath? What do you think?
RUTKOWIn a really strict sense of someone that, maybe, doesn't feel any sort of remorse or emotion to their actions, I'm on the fence about this, to be perfectly honest.
REHMAre you really?
RUTKOWWell, he seems much more concerned with plotting than he does with emotion. It seems that all of his actions are always being organized around something. Yet, he does seem to have genuine feelings for Camilla, and is concerned about protecting her at the same time. But again, you could always turn that back around.
REHMAfter he's killed two people.
RUTKOWAfter – well, so, to a certain extent, you know, look, if you're able to murder somebody, and the second time, he's not even in this Dionysian thing. He's just doing it. Perhaps that itself says you have to be a sociopath. So maybe that's the simplest answer.
REHMAnd, of course, Henry has taken Bunny off to Europe as part of the blackmail that Bunny is imposing on Henry, to keep the secret about the first killing. How does that affect Henry?
SNYDERWell, you know, Henry is quite annoyed by Bunny's character, of course.
SNYDERBut he, you know, it's interesting what you say about he really cares about Camilla, because, in fact, we're told he cares about Camilla, but that happens entirely offstage. We really never see them together, in the same way that we don't see Bunny's murder. Right? It's an interesting perspective of craft, when these moments happen offstage. So, they're left – she leaves it, Donna Tartt leaves it to our imagination. And what does she say about Henry, in the frost, right, when Bunny is killed?
SNYDERIt's April, I think. And so, it should be warm, but it's not, and that's why it takes a while for them to find his body, and Henry is upset that the flowers are gonna die. I think he's a psychopath, but I think he's a funny psychopath, actually, as many psychopaths are.
RUTKOWAnd he's sort of concerned about -- he's concerned about people, just not, maybe, at the right times for the right reasons. And, you know, I do think you have to come back. There's two murders here. He's at the center of both of them. So, in that sense, there's a clear -- there's a clear degree of psychopathy. I guess that's sort of his to own, and the other people are all being pulled into orbit. I mean, Richard doesn't seem that way. And yet, he gleefully seems to go along with the killing.
RUTKOWHe sets it up.
RUTKOWIf you take him out of this, I mean, arguably, he's the patsy here that Henry sees, at some point, and grabs, and sort of seduces, as he seduced Camilla, as he seduced everybody, and Julian, and everybody around him. He's the seductive one.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Leesburg, Virginia. Hi, Rebecca. You're on the air.
REBECCAHi. How are you?
REBECCAI'd like to talk a little bit about Donna Tartt, herself. I'm amazed by the reality that this is a debut novel. And I was managing a book store many years ago, and this came out as an advanced reader copy that caught my eye, and I read it back then. And then started recommending it to everybody, because I had the same experience you did, that I found everybody despicable and I hated them all, and I wanted them all to suffer. And yet, I couldn't put it down. And I think, for such a young writer to be able to create that compelling story is remarkable and no surprise to me that she's gone on to what she's now gone on to. I'm reading her current book now.
REHMThat's "The Gold Finch," isn't it?
REBECCAAnd I'd love to hear just some other thoughts on Donna Tartt herself and this kind of a bold undertaking for a debut novel.
SNYDERYou know, I'm so glad that you brought that up. First of all, I could not – I could not put "The Gold Finch" down. And I had to go to the ER at one point, and I brought it with me, and I kept saying to them, like, no, no, you can take this other patient. No, no, I'm not that bad. I'm just gonna sit here. And I think – like, the first thing I have to say is like, it's really hard to write a book. It's really hard.
SNYDERAnd I think when you are not a writer, you're very, very -- you're looking for every kind of stumble. And so, I'm glad that you said that. To me, it is extraordinary that this is a first novel. And much has been made about Donna Tartt's reticence to speak. She doesn't give many interviews. She's not really on social media. I mean, other people are in her – you know, she's got staff doing her – and I think, good for her. I'm glad to see a writer who is not sort of forced into that public arena of personality.
SNYDERAnd her work, and the power of her work, speaks for itself.
REHMHow do you think, or what do you think, or do you think there is a relationship between, that really can be measured, between her writing and that of Bret Easton Ellis.
RUTKOWSo, I hesitate too much to get inside of the heads of other writers, because I certainly don't know either of them. But I would say, and for me, when I was reading this, I had a strong feeling that American Psycho, which, I forget exactly when it came out, but it's a similar period, I think early 90s, is dealing with very, very similar themes. We have an obsession with brand names, we have an obsession with class, we have an obsession with violence. And we have sprinkled throughout, this sense of is this entire thing satire? Is this all farce? What's really – you know, what is the perspective of these authors?
RUTKOWAnd so I think that, for me, is where I want to understand. Do they almost represent a similar outlook, at least at that point in time, that comes through in both these works, but through the gifts of two very different authors.
REHMHave you read his work?
SNYDERI haven't, but I've read all of hers, and I think – I keep hearing the phrase, pretentious, right? Because she studies the Greek classics. And I think I tend not to agree with that read. I think she has just as many pop culture references, but because we're so familiar with those, we don't – they don't trigger us in the same way. It's the unfamiliar that we're reacting to, in some sense.
REHMAre you feeling that same way?
MILLERI actually found the references to pop culture confusing in conjunction with the Greek and the sort of intimations of another era. These kids don't know that someone went to the moon, and they refer to having seen it on TV, which seemed very strange to me, and then they'll happen to mention something very contemporary. So, that was jarring to me.
REHMWhat about the young woman down the hole?
MILLERYes. Again, I just thought the treatment of her, and most of the female characters, was just sort of cruel. I mean, she is so unappealing, as all the characters are. She's a drug dealer and drug doer. I think he calls her like a stupid slut several times, or something to that effect. She seems like a total airhead.
RUTKOWShe's a very nice airhead. Might be more than you can say about the other characters.
MILLERShe's nice to...
REHMShe was caring in one sense, and...
REHMWe should say that, at one point, Richard almost dies, because he has taken a part time job during the winter break, and sleeps in, literally, a roofless room when the temperature outside is below, way below freezing. And he kind of gets rescued. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to David, who's in Miami, Florida. Hi David.
DAVIDHi. First of all, I'd like to say that I've loved this conversation.
DAVIDAnd also, I loved the book. I wanna go back to something that was said in the opening comments about everybody being despicable, and one of your guests said that she found no one that she could identify with. I remember being a freshman in college, and being drawn to people who had this remarkable sense of self confidence about them. You know, people without scruples have no moral limitations on their self-confidence. And that's why some characters just seem so real to me, because I saw people that I so much wanted to be like. (unintelligible)
REHMThat's very interesting. Yeah. I think we all, in one way or another, admire the characteristics or the personality traits or the looks or the clothes or the standing or the self-confidence of other people. I must say, I certainly did in high school, but I think this takes it, perhaps, one step too far. Emily.
MILLERI would agree with that. Maybe a couple steps too far. To me, these characters were sort of beings trying to act like human beings. They didn't really ring true to me. And I think that was more the problem than whether they were likeable or not. I mean, I happen to have written a novel full of characters that people don't like.
SNYDERBut she's exposing them. Right? She doesn't allow their superficialities to remain, right, in the way that they're presented. The author exposes them...
REHMThat's true. That's true.
SNYDER...for as superficial as they are.
REHMDoes she not want us to like them? Does she want to make certain that we understand that these are characters without scruples, without conscience?
MILLERThat's really what I wondered on every page. You know, how does she want me to feel about this? It's an interesting way to read a book.
RUTKOWWell, and she does this, for me, what she does, and you talked about this with the moon landing stuff, is every time you start feeling, this feels real. These characters are real. She puts in just a little sign that makes me think, wait, is this real?
RUTKOWIt feels like it's supposed to be a little fantastic and I'm not supposed to think...
MILLERRight. This is another planet.
REHMOkay. So, last question for you, Emily. Was this the first time you had read this book?
REHMAnd would you recommend it to anyone else?
MILLERThat's a tough question. I would probably say no, but I also didn't like "The Gold Finch" too much, so – and I know that every – so many people love, love, love "The Gold Finch," so...
REHMAnd she just won the Pulitzer Prize for it.
MILLERShe's just – yes, exactly. So, I seem to be a little bit against the grain here.
REHMHow about you, Eric?
RUTKOWI think the strengths of it are so great, particularly things with some of the use of language that we haven't talked much about, and her control of pacing, which is really virtuosic. For those reasons alone, I would recommend it, especially to writers, maybe.
REHMAnd you, Emily? Sorry. Rachel.
SNYDERWell, I stayed in the ER reading "The Gold Finch," so I'm gonna say yes to all of them.
REHMAll right. Rachel Louise Snyder, Eric Rutkow and Emily Jeanne Miller. Her first novel is titled "Brand New Human Being," published in 2012. Thank you all so much.
SNYDERThank you, Diane.
MILLERThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks for listening. Next month, we'll be talking about the young adult novel, "The Fault In Our Stars."
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