I fell in love with Donna Tartt's The Secret History when I was 15 or 16, in France with my family, and my aunt lent me the copy she had brought with her as holiday reading. (I discovered We need to talk about Kevin in the same way: thanks Auntie J!)
Although I knew even as I was reading it that it was angsty, pretentious nonsense, I couldn't help myself - I was an angsty, pretentious, teenager and it spoke to me. It was about college, about people only slightly older than myself who seemed worlds away. They wear knee-sprung trousers and long woollen skirts and "unexpectedly beautiful" jackets: "old Brooks Brothers, unlined silk, ivory with stripes of peacock green." They have "off campus apartments" where they invite each other for dinner, bringing bottles of wine and champagne, about which they know a great deal. They buy each other books and cufflinks and go on holiday to somebody's enormous house "in the country". Their conversation is erudite and full of obscure quotations which they all recognise - a truly secret language.
For a geeky, sensitive teenager, full of love for language and learning and literature, resenting the hell out of people who didn't love these worthy things but seemed to be far happier than I was, it was like a hand reached out to me from far away. There are people like this, it said. Places where these people are. Bring to me your freaks. And despite the fact that these are mostly terrible people - arrogant, snobbish, unkind - there is something awfully seductive about the whole deal. And that, I always thought, was one of Tartt's underlying messages: hateful things can be tempting; fatally so. It's the worst kind of cliquishness, making you want to be on the inside not solely because the inside looks so lovely, but because being on the outside is so cold. The students are sneeringly indifferent to what they see as the lesser lives of the people around them; people who don't study Greek or wear suits and who prefer house parties to dinner parties. Being on the inside of that is shamefully tempting, especially for someone who has never fitted in - like Richard.
Richard, the narrator, is a kind of everyman interloper to this rarefied world, desperate to fit in, constantly terrified of being discovered to be fraudulent, masking his inadequacies with drugs and alcohol and Ancient Greek. It feels unfair to make generalisations about Tartt's writing based on only two books (I didn't read The Little Friend), but having just finished her most recent offering, The Goldfinch, I find the similarities uncanny. Both have young male protagonists cut adrift from family and stability (Richard and Theo); both have an esoteric but richly detailed and narratively important background subject (Ancient cultures and art/antiques); both are full of alcohol and drug use both as an escape from life and a cleaving to it - a desire to experience things more fully, to "wade straight through it, right into the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open" (Goldfinch); both feature beautiful, mysterious, unobtainable women (these women are "quirky", have unusual and passionate interests, and are generally loved and wanted by every male character (Pippa, Camilla, Theo's mother)), alongside women that the protagonist must settle for (who are beautiful, cold, tasteful, shallow (Kitsey, Mrs Barbour, Judy, Sophie)); both feature wild, destructive forces in friends (Boris, Henry) and absent and inadequate fathers replaced by cool, wise, sexless father figures (Julian Morrow, Hobie) who draw the innocent, wildly grasping protagonist into an elevated world in which they flail about desperately, in way over their heads, courting trouble that the detached elder finds both horrifying and secretly compelling.
They also share Tartt's idiosyncratic prose style, which I love and could pick out of a line up (there's an idea: a quiz on style, matching the writer with the writing!), as well as of course the deeper themes of her work: beauty, madness, lust, the death drive, timelessness, love.
Her characters, if not always likeable or the littlest bit realistic, are always so well-drawn that you want to know them, and her characters' descriptions are always at once trivial and vivid ("lovely, dusty-soled boy feet").
She also does that wonderfully silly thing of cameoing a character from one book in another for no apparent reason: in this case, Boston-born Francis Abernathy, one of the main characters in The Secret History, is mentioned in passing at Theo's engagement party in The Goldfinch (" ... Harry's cousin Francis - the Longstreets and the Abernathys are related on the father's side, Boston branch of the family ... "). Although this slightly saddens me by putting The Secret History into a time frame, when the novel itself works hard to keep even the smallest contextual reference hidden, I love it when characters cross worlds. It's the geek in me, probably - it's satisfying to realise how well you know a work, when the smallest reference in another place seems made just for you.
Quite apart from all these details, what Tartt's novels share above anything else is a sense of intensity. Her characters feel things compellingly deeply and that, I guess, is what keeps me coming back to them. Both protagonists feel the same sense of connection to (although also isolation from) the world, one which, when they achieve it bridges continents and centuries. They talk of the light that suffuses a page of Greek prose, a light than exists in no other language and that they feel bonded together by understanding. They talk of the brushstrokes which capture the goldfinch, bringing a centuries-old bird into the contemporary in a way that seems personal to each viewer. They talk of the timelessness of art, the essentialness of it when compared with brief, pointless human life. It is at once a nihilistic and joyful worldview, and one which the most compelling of Tartt's characters (Henry, Boris) share and her hapless interlopers (Richard and Theo) ceaselessly aspire to. The death wish and the life wish together.
For whatever reason, however pretentious or sentimental, I love The Secret History and will always love it. I really enjoyed The Goldfinch, and I will give The Little Friend another try, but for me, The Secret History is that book. I hope Donna Tartt doesn't leave it another 10 years before publishing again.