“Okay, ladies, be honest. What did you think of The Secret History?”
It’s the first ever meeting of the 20th Century Book Club, and I may as well have written the book myself; that’s how nervous I am that they liked it. In a show of false nonchalance, I sip my wine, which everyone knows is the beverage of choice for book clubs, and I clutch the spine of The Secret History. It has been my absolute favorite book since it was first published, way back in 1992. At the time, I was a senior in high school, skipping prom and sitting home alone in my bedroom, reading about Richard Papen’s escape from small-town California to study classics at an Ivy-League type school in the Northeast. At the time, I’d longed for a similar escape, hopeful my future would be like Richard’s - minus the heavy drug use and murder, of course. But to find a group of friends who were smart and sophisticated – ones who had goals, ones who understood me, and to find them at a place that was worlds away from the hick town where I’d grown up – that had been my dream, and I’d loved The Secret History both for its bleakness and for its promise. I only hope the other members of our brand new 20th Century Book Club, made up of ladies who live within a block of me, feel the same.
“It was really dark!” says Leah. She’s the newest addition to the neighborhood and we bonded quickly. Besides bearing the distinction of being the only two single female homeowners on our block, we also seem aligned in other ways. I love her bohemian style, plus, it’s rare for me to be around someone who makes me laugh so easily. “I mean,” she continues, “beside it being about this group of snooty college kids murdering their friend, it led me to some heavy places. Like, I was rooting for murderers and sympathizing with Henry, even though he was a total sociopath.”
Kayla, a lawyer who lives four houses down from me, bites her lip and creases her forehead. “Was he a sociopath or a psychopath? I’m not sure.”
Febe, who is technically my “ward” (I’m her legal guardian; she used to be my student, but now I feel like she’s my sister), speaks up. “Henry’s a sociopath. I’m taking psychology right now, and sociopaths can sort of feel bad about things, and they aren’t quite as manipulative as psychopaths. They’re, like, psychopaths light.”
“Right, well…that’s exactly it.” Leah throws out her arm for emphasis. “So, they all love Henry, because he’s brilliant or a natural leader or whatever, and they follow him blindly even though there’s something evil about him. But the thing is, I get it! And if I were Camilla, I’d probably have hooked up with him too!”
“Well, sure,” says Annette. She is seventy-five if she’s a day. Several years ago, when I moved to the neighborhood, she took me under her wing, telling me she’s lived in her house for over 40 years and she knows everything there is to know about the area. Then, she gave me all the dirt about our neighbors, and I came to understand that she’s mastered how not to waste time sidestepping any issue. “But all the guys except Francis, who was obviously gay, were into Camilla. Even Charles, her twin! Why? What was so special about her, that Richard never even got over her?”
“She had that wounded bird thing going on,” says Jessie. A sinewy yet petite woman in her late forties, she seems the opposite of a wounded bird. It’s like strength seeps out of her pores. “Guys love someone they can protect.”
“Hmpf.” Says Annette. “And why was she the only girl in the Classics department? Everybody knows females are more likely to study humanities.” Annette gestures to me. “Just look at Hazel, teaching high school English. She can back me up here. How many fellas are there in the English department? How many of the people you went to school with were male?”
I bite my lip, trying not to stammer. “Well, not very many, I guess. But there’s a difference between teaching high school English and studying the classics.”
“Sure,” concedes Annette. “But it’s not a very big difference.”
Jessie nods as if to affirm Annette’s point. “The thing that struck me was, other than Richard, none of the other characters had to worry much about money. They could afford an Ivy League education studying classics.” Jessie leans forward as she speaks, but sits back when she’s done, giving her statement emphasis. Jessie and her husband own a diner a few blocks away, and I’m pretty sure they’re always worried about the bottom line.
I breathe deep and let out an anguished exhale. “So, you all hated it, then?”
I’m met by a bouquet of blank stares as they struggle to respond. Febe is the first to find her voice. “I really enjoyed it,” she begins, “even though none of the characters were very likeable, and they all did terrible, deplorable things. But the writing was so good, I barely noticed.”
Leah nodded. “Yeah. It’s like, I hated them all and couldn’t stand their choices, but I was still always in suspense. And all the connections to the ancient Greeks – that was pretty cool.”
Annette clears her throat. “I agree. But I’m curious, Hazel, what was it about the book that you love so much?”
I look down at the book in my lap, brushing nonexistent crumbs off my favorite corduroy skirt, which I’d chosen to wear especially for this occasion. Then I open my copy of The Secret History to page two, the end of the prologue. “It was this line,” I say. And I read directly from Donna Tartt’s text. “I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.” I sigh, feeling nearly tearful. Excellent writing has that effect on me. I’m often brought to tears by eloquent prose, which can be embarrassing when I’m reading aloud to my students. “I live my life by stories,” I tell the group. “I try to teach my students to understand stories, and to appreciate their significance, and to tell their own stories. And I read story after story. I even write my own stories, both fictional and true. But the idea that there was only one story this protagonist, Richard, could ever tell, and at such a young age – well, I was sucked in immediately. I was sucked in by his voice, and his despair, and by the vivid descriptions he used to describe what happened. I couldn’t tear myself away, and I mean that literally. I was eighteen when I read this, too much of an introvert to be asked to prom, so on the night when all my classmates were partying, I stayed up until three AM, finishing The Secret History, and dreamt of escape from Topeka, Kansas to college, where I’d hopefully find friends who cared about the same stuff I cared about.”
By now, my random, ragtag group of ladies who’d agreed to be in a book club with me, no longer have their mouths dropped open. Instead, their brows are furrowed, their heads tilted in contemplation.
“And did you?” asks Annette. “Did you find your escape?”
“Yes,” I reply. “But for me, there are so many stories I could tell – many, many more than one.”
Leah laughs. “I’m with you. Sometimes I’m exhausted by all my drama. But I’d probably feel worse if there was this one huge thing from my past that had defined me so much that nothing else that had ever happened was even worth talking about.”
Annette presses her lips together and raises her eyebrows. “For me, I’ve had a handful of defining moments, and everything that happens before or after is still worth telling, but will always be secondary.”
Febe, the youngest member of the group, speaks to Annette, the group’s oldest member. “Did your defining moments change? Because I’d say I already have several, and I’m only seventeen.”
“Some of them faded,” Annette answers. “Others started out so bright, there’s no turning them down.”
Kayla and Jessie, who are both on the other side of forty, murmur in agreement.
We all sit in a silent moment of contemplation. I think about my own defining moments, my own stories that have made me who I am, and which have gotten me here, to this moment, which is unique in its own right. “I guess that’s why I love novels,” I say. “Because no matter what, they’re always going to be about defining moments in a character’s life. And it’s also why I love discussing novels, because we can compare the character’s defining moments to our own.”
“Does that mean we have to share our most scandalous stories?” Annette asks.
I’ve got a feeling she might have some serioulsy scandalous stories to tell. Laughing, I reply. “Only if you want to.”
Leah shrugs. “My life is an open book. But how about we start by discussing The Secret History?”
“I second that,” says Febe. “I love a good story. But let’s take it one story at a time.”
“Sounds good,” I reply, and I unfold the reader’s guide I’d printed in anticipation of this evening’s get together and ask my first question.
(Refer to "Secret History Reader's Guide" for the book club questions)
20th Century Book Club is about a fictional group of women, discussing real (fictional) books. Every month you'll see the story of their book club meeting, plus you'll have access to the book information and reader's guide if you'd like to do your 20th Century Book Club. Scroll all the way down to see the cast of characters and their profiles!