Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 922
This is an eminently quotable novel, written in a lush style that is descriptive, suspenseful and often very funny, as well as horrifying. Part of why the story works so well is that it is entirely told in the third person, and the narrator, Richard, is an imaginative, intelligent but also very self-aware character. He sets out to tell the story of his college days and the people he met there, but first we are given the central mystery of the novel, in the very first sentence:
The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.
This has been called by many one of the best first lines in modern literature, including Donna Tartt's debut novel in the company of illustrious authors like Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen, James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Indeed, this novel often conjures a comparison to The Great Gatsby, with its dreamy first person narrator and its description of a decadent, lavish lifestyle and the deceitful people at the heart of it. This first line gives us the "who," the "where," the "when," and the "what" of the crime, but not the "why," and the answer to why these young people murdered their friend in the woods makes up the story.
This is a favorite novel of mine and I have many quotes committed to memory, but I'll select several more that are especially pertinent and try to give context for them. But first it seems important to find a quote that helps describe the narrator, who is our guide for the entire story. Readers almost invariably seek to discover if a first person narrator is reliable, and Richard's honesty is in doubt early on when he describes his childhood and upbringing in a suburban California town before he arrived at Hampden College:
My years there created for me an expendable past, disposable as a plastic cup. Which I suppose was a very great gift, in a way. On leaving home I was able to fabricate a new and far more satisfying history, full of striking, simplistic environmental influences; a colorful past, easily accessible to strangers.
This quote allows us to see that Richard is no stranger to lying, that he creates his own "secret history" about himself, and that he is eager to invent a more interest past for himself, especially as a way to impress his mysterious, sophisticated new friends. Generally the others are kind to him, and do not judge his past or his financial situation, but Bunny, who is often cruel and manipulative, sees through Richard's anxiety and tries to expose his petty lies about his clothes, his background, and his life before Hampden.
Richard is painfully aware of not fitting in, and of wanting to be more than his upbringing suggests is possible. Herein we see the similarity of this novel to The Great Gatsby, and Nick, the first person narrator, who is sucked into Gatsby's world and is used by him to get to Daisy. Richard eventually makes this literary homage/connection clear for the reader, if it was in doubt:
When I could no longer concentrate on Greek [. . .] I read The Great Gatsby . It is one of my favorite books and I had taken it out of the library in hopes that it would cheer me up; of course, it only made me feel worse, since in my own humorless state I failed to see anything except what I construed as certain tragic similarities between Gatsby and...
(The entire section contains 922 words.)
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