Thoughts: A Book Hangover after The Secret History by Donna Tartt

This isn’t a proper review.  I don’t know if I’m smart enough to write a real review of The Secret History, and I’m certainly not feeling eloquent or organized enough to attempt one right now.  Instead, here’s an excerpt from my latest blog post about how hard it is to return to the real world after getting sucked into a really good book.

All week, a significant chunk of my attention was always absent from the task at hand, because I was reading an extremely compelling book.  Any time I wasn’t reading I was wishing that I could, and it was quite a busy week for me so there was less spent with the actual novel and more time spent cursing at my steering wheel about the impossibility (or, rather, the illegality) of reading during one’s commute.

The Secret History was written bloody ages ago, published when I was but two years old, but I only got around to reading it just now.  For years, my bookish friends have been insisting that I should pick it up ASAP, because it’s about everything I love.  Mysterious young people with secrets!  Pagan activities in the woods!  The perils of academia; tragically wasted youth; manipulative teachers; well dressed young lads; hilarity in country homes!  Heck, it even takes place in rural Vermont, where I’ve been spending so much time lately.  And it starts with a murder!  I trust my friends’ judgement, and they know what kind of stories I love, so I’m not surprised that this book seized hold of my brain and wouldn’t release it back into the mundane world until I finished the last page two days later.  (I would have happily read it in one day, with rare snack-breaks and without speaking to anyone, but as Bernard Black so aptly points out: “Books must be sold, and money made.”)

So why did I wait to read The Secret History until now; twenty years after its publication?  I tried to read it in my third year of University, even packed it in my barely-containable suitcase of books to bring to Scotland with me for that express purpose, but I found that I couldn’t bear to read about other college students floundering in situations over their heads when my own academic career was fraught with peril.  I mean, I never had to wash human blood off myself and then translate ancient Greek passages for the morning, but I did struggle with my medieval Scottish poetry class now and then…

Now that I’m free from perilous Academia, though, I can sometimes feel downright nostalgic for those happy days of learning and seclusion from the real world.  The Secret History sucked me instantly into its world of pine forests, secretive country homes, literary allusions, and a vivid (if a bit culturally un-diverse) cast of characters.  The ensemble made my most outlandish friends seem tame and one-dimensional in comparison.  It was so strange to read about a time when students had to borrow each others’ typewriters and call each other on payphones, and reading it made me feel rather young.  I like feeling young now and then.  And the plot, while steeped in elbow patches and slow burning cigarettes rather than fast-paced action, was so tense I couldn’t help but snap at any family members or friends who dared to interrupt me while I was clinging, white-knuckled, to the heavy book.

When I finished reading it, I had such trouble extracting myself from the fictional world I had been inhabiting.  This happens frequently when I get immersed in a great book, but I can’t remember the last time I had such trouble re-adjusting to the real world.  I probably sold five or six copies of The Secret History that week, because I felt a dreadful need to throw other readers’ minds and souls into Donna Tartt’s story.  Sort of like that movie The Ring?  But I hope they’ll enjoy reading it on their plane rides and holidays.  It’s an interesting story to be trapped in – so picturesque, smart, and twisted – and a hard one to escape.

Review of The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman (coming in February, 2014)

I had the chance to meet Alice Hoffman two weeks ago, when she came to my bookshop and did a wonderful reading from her nonfiction book Survival Lessons. She was so interesting, kind, and beautifully honest in her talk, and she graciously let me babble at her like a drunk loon about how much I enjoyed Green Angel and Practical Magic when I was a teenager.

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My favorite of her books are the ones which are tinted with a little magic (or a lot of magic) and an atmosphere of something strange and wondrous lurking just behind the words. The Probable Future is another great one like that, as is – I hear – The Story Sisters.

I managed to lay my hands on an ARC (advanced reader’s copy) of Alice’s newest book, which is going to be released this coming February. She’s returned to fiction with The Museum of Extraordinary Things, and I’m happy to report that it falls into the category of dark and strange stories. Here’s my review. Keep an eye out for the book in February!

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15+. (Tragic deaths and sexual violence.)

The Museum of Extraordinary Things is about – you guessed it – a museum full of extraordinary things. More accurately, it’s about Coney Island in the beginnings of the 20th century, when theme parks and amusements were the center of society’s attention. A “professor” with a mysterious past curates a museum with his daughter and housekeeper, and displays both strange artifacts and “living wonders” to the curious public. These “living wonders” are people with deformities or special skills who make their livings as performers, and through the eyes of Coralie – the professor’s daughter, whose hands are like a mermaid’s – we see the inner operations of the museum. Coralie’s connection with water extends past her webbed fingers; she can hold her breath for an almost inhuman length of time and swims through the Hudson River even in the depths of winter. Raised by Maureen, her beloved housekeeper, Coralie grows up sheltered and contained by the manipulative Professor Sardie. When she stumbles upon Eddie Cohen taking photographs in the woods one night, Coralie is drawn out of her small world of magical trickery and into the electric, ever-changing world of Manhattan. Eddie has changed his name and hidden his Jewish upbringing in order to escape from a painful past which still haunts him. As a photographer he has his eyes open to the beautiful parts of nature and humanity, as well as to the horrors which fill his city. Miserable working conditions for immigrants, violent crime, and selfishness are part of the reality which Eddie turns into art, and his extensive view of the world creates a strong contrast to Coralie’s immersion in the details of the museum. When Eddie tries to track down a girl who went missing after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, his quest gets entangled with Coralie’s yearning for freedom and a vivid cast of characters who shed light on a past which is best left forgotten.

I’ll start out with the aspects of the book I loved. Good news: there are several! First of all, the characters were really interesting and detailed. Coralie, Eddie, Professor Sardie, and Maureen demanded most of the narration’s attention, but the minor characters and historical figures kept the story lively, showing depth and personality even in the briefest of appearances. The “living wonders” are never reduced to mere circus freaks, partly because Coralie doesn’t see them as such and also because Alice Hoffman was careful to show that these people were performers rather than lifeless displays. In addition to the men and women in the museum, the novel features a fascinating Dutch hermit, a bird-loving livery man with a dangerous past, an impeccably dressed “wolf man” with a scholarly appreciation of gothic novels, and some really distasteful specimens of humanity who prove to be way more twisted than anything in Sardie’s museum.

The novel’s careful attention to detail extends beyond the characters and into the historical setting itself. Coney Island is shown at a time when the demand for bigger and more competitive spectacles reached a frenzy: electricity is new and exotic animals are exciting. Women still faint when they get surprised. The Dreamland amusement park, which was very real, is being built throughout the novel, and there’s constant tension between the museum’s old-fashioned charm and these newer, more splashy, amusements. In Eddie’s part of the story, the industrial city is growing faster than can be sustained and many peoples’ ways of life are swallowed whole. The events take place against a backdrop of progress as the city itself expands, but we are left wondering if progress was worthwhile at such a cost. Manhattan and Coney Island become characters in their own rights, and the small-ish geographical setting is written with such a careful eye to detail that whole worlds open up in just a few square miles.

As this was a historical novel, I was also impressed with Alice Hoffman’s incorporation of history into the fictional love story she tells. Her major characters are invented to suit the narrative’s purpose – I would say that most of her books which I’ve read have been distinctly character-driven – but the setting is so important to the atmosphere that it would be a shame had she not fleshed it out with real details from such a memorable time. Two famously disastrous fires act as bookends and frame the story: the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire shows us the horrible reality of how badly immigrant workers were treated (good luck getting the image of young girls jumping nine stories to their death out of your head once you’ve read this scene), and the inferno which burned down Dreamland ends the action in a whirlwind of nightmarish confusion. Hoffman stations her characters in the center of the action for these momentous incidents, therefore revealing the small details which force us to imagine them as real experiences rather than just names and dates. Her attention to detail shows how the politics and events of a place affect everyone who makes up a certain environment; her characters do not simply exist within the setting but act to illuminate the setting’s importance on our history and our collective interpretation of the past.

There were some weird parts of The Museum of Extraordinary Things which I can’t quite qualify as either “good” or “bad”, but I want to mention them anyway. The language was so poetic, and there were so many obvious metaphors; repeated images; and extended themes, that I had a hard time getting fully immersed in the novel’s writing and plot. Persistent opposition of fire and water images, and the constant dynamic between the wild versus city expansion were beautiful at times but seemed too repetitive and might draw some readers out of the story. The narrative style and shifting points of view might cause similar problems for some readers. Within each section of the book we get a chunk of text written in first person from Coralie’s past-tense point of view, a connected piece in the third person following those memories, another first-person narration from Eddie’s past-tense point of view, and yet another description of those events in the third person. This structure works better in the second half of the book, when Eddie and Coralie’s lives intertwine more obviously, but it’s a little tiresome the first few times the style changes. It’s important that we can understand the differences between how the characters see their own lives and how they really fit into their surroundings, but I wish this could have been achieved in a less abrupt style. Like I said, though, by the end of the book I wasn’t bothered so much by the shifts, since the distant plot lines eventually got braided together into a bigger picture.

The only real problem I had with the book actually has to do with how the conclusion is treated for each of the characters we grow to love throughout the story. Everything gets tied up too neatly at the end, both during and after a few scenes of intense drama and confusion. There’s a rush of chance solutions and solved mysteries which seemed to pile upon one another in rapid succession, thus downplaying the shock and concern we should be feeling for these characters and the city as we read the penultimate chapters. The denouement of this book could have been incredibly moving as well as hectic, but so many conclusions happen in so little time that the emotional impact gets buried under a rushed listing of near deaths and daring escapes. I must admit that I expected slightly more from a book which remained subtle and richly detailed until the last few chapters. This is not to say that I disliked the book by the time I put it down. On the contrary, I’m now determined to read more about the time period, and I’m sure that the characters will stay with me for quite a while. I just wish that the final action could have lived up to the careful research and detailed characters which set up for what could have been an emotional conclusion to such an interesting story.

I would recommend The Museum Of Extraordinary Things to fans of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, as well as to tragedy junkies and anyone who liked the excellent (and woefully short-lived) HBO series Carnivale. Alice Hoffman raises questions about family loyalty, selfishness and sacrifice, trust, religious faith, the need for adventure, and the past’s impact on every choice we make. Even if you don’t know much at all about the early years of the 20th century, pick up this book in February for a peep into a very true – and relatively recent – world in which living wonders and shocking reality combined to create one of the most dreamlike atmospheres in America’s history. It will open your eyes and fire up your imagination.