I’ve spent the last week or so, maybe longer, reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I wanted an absorbing novel, which it was, although I felt it was longer than it needed to be. It’s hard to tell, though, if a book feels too long because it IS too long, or because I’m too busy to read it at the pace I’d like and so it takes me longer to finish than I think it will. At any rate, it was enjoyable. I’ve been in the mood for academic novels lately, and this book scratched that itch. It’s set in a Vermont town that’s pretty clearly Bennington, and is about a close-knit group of students who take almost all their courses from one Greek professor. We learn at the book’s beginning that one of these students was murdered, but we don’t know how or why. So the novel is a cross between an academic novel and a murder mystery. As I was reading it, I kept thinking about the dust-up over this interview where Claire Messud gets (justifiably) irritated at a question about whether anyone would want to be friends with her character Nora from The Woman Upstairs. That interview sparked a whole lot of talk about likeable characters and whether readers want them in novels and whether it’s okay to want them. I found the characters in The Secret History to be intensely unlikeable all the way through. If they aren’t privileged, wealthy, and spoiled, they are arrogant and rude or feckless and foolish. The first-person narrator is one of the students, and he is the most sympathetic, but he still gets himself involved in horrible doings when he should know better and his attitude toward the novel’s events felt oddly distanced. Even so, I enjoyed reading about these characters, and so did a lot of other readers, evidently, as the book has been very popular. Perhaps this idea that readers want likeable characters just isn’t true, or perhaps readers are more likely to give college-aged students a pass? At any rate, I was surprised when one of the people on a podcast I listen to said that, given the option of what fictional world she’d like to live in, she’d choose the world of The Secret History, just without the murders. While a world where it’s possible to live in Vermont and spend tons of time studying Greek sounds appealing, I wouldn’t want to be a part of The Secret History. I’m very happy just to read about it and keep a safe distance.