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559 pages, Paperback
First published September 16, 1992
“Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.”
“What we did was terrible, but still I don't think any of us were bad, exactly; chalk it up to weakness on my part, hubris on Henry’s, too much Greek prose composition – whatever you like.”
“Beauty is rarely soft or consolatory. Quite the contrary. Genuine beauty is always quite alarming.”
“Everything was going beautifully, on the brink of taking wing, and I had a feeling that I'd never had, that reality itself was transforming around us in some beautiful and dangerous fashion, that we were being driven by a force we didn't understand, towards an end I did not know.”
Never, never once in any immediate sense, did it occur to me that any of this was anything but a game. An air of unreality suffused even the most workaday details, as if we were plotting not the death of a friend but the itinerary of a fabulous trip that I, for one, never quite believed we'd ever really take.
In a certain sense, this was why I felt so close to the others in the Greek class. They, too, knew this beautiful and harrowing landscape, centuries dead; they'd had the same experience of looking up from their books with fifth-century eyes and finding the world disconcertingly sluggish and alien, as if it were not their home.
But while I have never considered myself a very good person, neither can I bring myself to believe that I am a spectacularly bad one. Perhaps it's simply impossible to think of oneself in such a way, our Texan friend being a case in point. What we did was terrible, but still I don't think any of us were bad, exactly; chalk it up to weakness on my part, hubris on Henry's, too much Greek prose composition – whatever you like.
Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw’, that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.For Richard, this starts after he moves from Plano, California to Hampden College. Even the name had an austere Anglican cadence, to my ear at least, which yearned hopelessly for England and was dead to the sweet dark rhythms of the little mission towns. There he meets Greek students Henry, Francis, the twins: Charles and Camilla, and Bunny. Or as their Classics instructor, budding cult leader, Julian describes them:
genis gratus, corpore glabellus, arte multiscius, et fortuna opulentus-- smooth-cheeked, soft-skinned, well-educated, and rich.This is a character driven book and has one of the most vibrant examinations of the human condition I’ve ever come across. Most notable, for me at least is Henry. Part Sherlock Holmes, part Regina George… he was remarkable, evocative, admirable and the kind of man I’d need to microdose on should I want to enjoy him recreationally. A lot of the muslin-thin plot is driven by Henry’s decision making (yes, Richard is a one-note observer of the life and times of these notorious five but he’s still a stout narrator).
“But how,” said Charles, who was close to tears, “how can you possibly justify cold-blooded murder?”This story gains its wheels once Richard gains entry into the core friendship. As the modern day narrator Richard is recollecting these tragic events that occurred while he was at college, he tells us:
Henry lit a cigarette, “I prefer to think of it,” he had said, “as redistribution of matter.”
“It is easy to see things in retrospect, but I was ignorant then of everything but my own happiness, and I don’t know what else to say except that life itself seemed very magical in those days: a web of symbol, coincidence, premonition, omen. Everything, somehow, fit together, some sly and benevolent Providence was revealing itself by degrees and I felt myself trembling on the brink of a fabulous discovery…”I was so hooked and eager to see what they would do. Even if it was just accompanying them in their day-to-day life. Even their classes were fun to sit in on. Their comparisons of Roman and Greek philosophies, their vague romanticizing of Bacchanalia,
“Beauty is terror. We want to be devoured by it, to hide ourselves in that fire which refines us.”But perhaps this book’s greatest strength is how remarkably easy it is to read. I went in expecting dense prose and drowning by vocabulary but apart from the odd word or turn of Latin phrase, this book was easy to devour. It was also very descriptive. Tartt has a way with words that is both immersive and ambient. Not only was I right there in the room with Richard as he shared with me his story, I could feel what every character on page was feeling. Tartt’s prose leaves a lot for the reader to infer and there’s nothing I love more than an author who can trust their audience.
Without warning I had a vision of Francis- twenty years later, fifty years, in a wheelchair. And of myself- older, too, sitting around with him in some smokey room, the two of us repeating this exchange for the thousandth time. At one time I had liked the idea, that the act, at least, had bound us together, we were not ordinary friends, but friends till-death-do-us-part. This thought had been my only comfort in the aftermath… Now it made me sick, knowing there was no way out. I was stuck with them, with all of them, for good.This is a book that will stay with me for years. Often, when I was revisiting my notes I would find myself rereading and would have to stop myself because other books exist that deserve to be read. A whydunnit tale, about a group of students who cause death and destruction in their pursuit to see god but still have to worry about their Greek homework is one of the greatest books I've ever read.