I’m a sucker for the author who, in a few masterful strokes, can bring to life every character in a novel. No minor players are left to languish in stereotypes and the protagonists are lush with personality, so much so that it’s almost Dostoyevsky-esque the way Donna Tartt convinces you to sympathize with murdering Bunny Corcoran.
A gift from a friend, The Secret History did what any great thriller does: kept me glued until the last page. It’s unconventional in its telling, as we know from the very beginning who did it and how. What drives the reader’s curiosity is the search for answers to more complicated questions like "Why?" and "What Now?"
More than a mere mystery, though, Tartt’s novel is a gorgeous exploration of the emotional ride of being a college freshman: that longing to escape where you came from and that desperation to belong to some more divine social group.
Richard Papen is our narrator and escort through the story. His desire to belong and his navigation of the costs that come with it is a poignant commentary on the ecstasies and agonies of friendship. As a girl who went to four elementary schools in three countries, I was especially struck by Richard’s journey through all the risks of investing yourself in others. Luckily, I never fell in with a group so obsessed with intellectual mysticism that it led to a disastrous trip to Italy and finally murder.
Recently escaped from his bland, lower-class life in Plano, California, Richard sinks gratefully into an elite liberal arts college in Vermont and is quickly enthralled by the small group of Greek students. Studying under an eccentric professor who insists all their classes be with him, the group is elevated and isolated from the rest of the college. Richard joins their ranks, capturing for me the ecstasy of being included, the unfamiliar obligations that come with that, and the squirming suspicion that you may not be completely included after all. Richard is never quite in the thick of things, even when he is. It’s never his tragedy nor his love story nor his revenge. Eventually, after the book’s violent climax, Richard balefully describes himself as “the bystander which I so essentially am.”
The only off-key note for me was the novel’s ending. Rather than a neat finish, the story just seems to wander off. Nevertheless, the gripping narrative and the painful reflection of my own aching to fit in made this one juicy read.
I knew I wanted a cocktail recipe to do this novel justice since the protagonists are preoccupied with escaping their own minds, whether through a bacchanalia, drugs or alcohol. And as a trip to Italy is a catalyst for Bunny’s death and the ultimate undoing of his murderer, Henry, I was immediately drawn to the Il Palio. I love how the melting of the blood red Campari ice cubes mimic the suspenseful build of Tartt’s story and its chilling (see what I did there?) revelations.
IL PALIO COCKTAILS
For the Campari ice cubes:
- ¾ oz. Campari
- 2 oz. water
For the cocktail:
- 2 oz. bourbon
- 1 oz. sweet vermouth
- Orange bitters
- Orange twist, for garnish (optional)
Several hours ahead of time, mix Campari and water and freeze in a square ice mold.
Once Campari cubes are frozen, place two in a rocks glass. Pour all ingredients over ice cubes and (if you’re fancier than I am) garnish with a wide orange twist.
Stir the drink to start the ice melting. Sip while plotting something unspeakable.