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There's something about creepy, cultish collegiates

How do you like that alliteration?!

But seriously, folks, what do these three books have in common?*

1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt: "Narrator Richard Papen comes from a lower-class family and a loveless California home to the 'hermetic, overheated atmosphere' of Vermont's Hampden College...he is accepted into a clique of five socially sophisticated students who study Classics with an idiosyncratic, morally fraudulent professor. Despite their demanding curriculum (they quote Greek classics to each other at every opportunity) the friends spend most of their time drinking and taking pills."

2. Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl: "After 10 years of traveling with her father, a perennial (and pedantic) visiting lecturer at various, obscure institutions of higher learning, Blue Van Meer finally settles in as a senior at the St. Gallway School in Stockton, North Carolina. There she is bemused to find herself part of a charmed circle of popular kids called the Bluebloods and the protege of the mysterious film-studies teacher, Hannah Schneider."

3. The Likeness by Tana French: " A young woman [is] found stabbed to death in a small town outside Dublin. The dead girl’s ID says her name is Lexie Madison—the identity Detective Cassie Maddox used years ago as an undercover detective—and she looks exactly like Cassie. With no leads, no suspects, and no clue to Lexie’s real identity, Cassie’s old undercover boss spots the opportunity of a lifetime. They can say that the stab wound wasn’t fatal and send Cassie undercover in her place to find out information that the police never would and to tempt the killer out of hiding. At first Cassie thinks the idea is crazy, but she is seduced by the prospect of working on a murder investigation again and by the idea of assuming the victim’s identity as a graduate student with a cozy group of friends."

If you said an outsider narrator who infiltrates a group of highly intellectual, wealthy, mysterious, cliquish co-eds, you'd be right on the money. This is not to say that these books are cheap knock offs of each other; I've read them all, and they certainly are not, although it's impossible to imagine that Special Topics in Calamity Physics and The Likeness were not in some way influenced and shaped by Donna Tartt's masterpiece, which came out more than ten years before either of the other two and is sort of the king of the sub-sub-genre they're all working in.

You know what else these books have in common? A murder mystery. Like you're surprised. The situation is ripe for intrigue, especially with all that money and hotness and ancient languages and money floating around. Oh, did I say money twice?

My inner critic wants to debate the merits of each of these novels, but that's not really my point here. Still, my inner critic cannot be snuffed out, so here we go: All these novels have plots that are melodramatic and mildly unbelievable, so you really do have to surrender your reality at the door. That said, once you do, two out of the three of them will not disappoint you one iota. The Secret History is the best of the three because Donna Tartt is an amazing writer, her prose is top-notch, and she does some wicked cool stuff with character (mainly, authorly acrobatics that somehow trick you into caring about a passel of insufferable narcissists). The Secret History is a modern classic, so if you read any of these it should really be that one.

The Likeness is really great for an entirely different reason. Tana French knows how to take a narrator and make you care fiercely about that person, and she doesn't need to trick you into it like Donna Tartt--Cassie Maddox is just a damn awesome woman, and that's necessary because unlike The Secret History, which uses Richard Papen to tell the story of other people, The Likeness is all about Cassie, which makes you more invested. Tana French is also a great, great writer, prose-wise, and her story is shorter and simpler, which makes it less grand and epic but also makes it hit closer to home.

As for Special Topics in Calamity Physics...well, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, Pessl's narrator is not as deftly executed as the others, and this has a trickle-down affect with the rest of the characters in the book, plus the first three hundred or so pages manage to be both wicked boring and also irritatingly precocious (any piece of fiction peppered liberally with MLA citations is NO FRIEND OF MINE). On the other hand, Pessl manages to pull it out at the end, and it turns out that her mystery is the most intricate and fascinating of the three. So, while I ended up enthralled with the novel towards the end, I'm probably one of the few people who managed to get that far without throwing the book against the wall and crying, "I give up!"

But my point wasn't really to criticize, or even review, any of these books. My point is really a question: What makes these sorts of tales so interesting? As Bella was drawn to the Cullens,** so is the reader drawn to Tartt's classic Greek scholars, French's mansion-dwelling Dubliners, and Pessl's Bluebloods. Why is this? Obviously, these being murder mysteries, the odds of these people being fully gone loonies is astronomically high and in real life one would be foolish not to steer clear.

I track this to "I have enough friends" syndrome. As we all learned in middle school, cliques are both deeply frustrating and also incredibly fascinating--from the outside, that is. The idea that a couple of people would cut themselves off so deliberately from everyone else in their peer-populated environment is baffling and bizarre, not to mention incredibly tempting, even if deep down you know you'd rather eat rusty nails than spend quality time with any of these people. You can't help but imagine that they are full of intrigue and secrets, probably licentious ones--sex, drugs, crimes that carry the death penalty in most states, the whole nine yards. And you also, stupidly, believe that if they would just let you in, you would be privy to all these secrets. Not so, as our luckless narrators find out one by one, but it seems possible, and therein lies the source of their power, and thus the draw of these types of stories. People who read are a lot like spies--they want to know things, have to know things, and cannot rest until they do, even if it costs them their (or the narrators') lives.

*All summaries taken from Amazon
**See Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

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  1. Blogger chris | 1:43 PM |  

    I keep hearing things about Special Topics, but Secret History does sound a lot more interesting. Winter break reading for fun could not come sooner!

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