Richard Papen is a college student from California. In truth, he's a little aimless in his academic life, not popular at school, and also not happy at home. His parents are simply not on the same wavelength and actually do not seem to like the son they've produced. He makes the decision to try to get accepted at the college at Hampden in Vermont, a college both expensive and isolated, situated as it is in the White mountains. Not expecting to be successful he's surprised to find himself accepted.
Richard hasn't been there long when he decides that he wants to join the rather exclusive Ancient Greek language course, run by the enigmatic teacher, Julian Morrow. Julian takes only a few students every year and this exclusive group tend to keep apart from the rest of the students and think of themselves as something special. After one unsuccessful attempt at joining the course, Richard makes himself known to the student group in the library and, on his second try, is successful. But 'fitting in' turns out to be not as easy as he'd thought. The course is far beyond what Richard has previously been doing in Greek lessons and the other students seem reluctant to 'let him in'. They're led by Henry, a student not very communicative but with a lot of charismatic presence. Twins, Charles and Camilla are more friendly, as are Francis and Edmund 'Bunny', two boys with well off parents, although Henry is by far the richest of the students. Richard's family are not well off but Richard makes the decision to pretend to be rich in order to fit it.
Things change and Richard begins to settle in and becomes friends with the group. But something is not quite right. He comes to suspect that they have secrets and that they are purposely keeping something important from him. The long Christmas break arrives, Richard can't go home so takes lodgings and a job with a local hippy. It's disastrous and Richard practically freezes to death in his accommodation. Henry and Bunny have gone off to France but Henry mysteriously returns early and rescues Richard from certain death. Slowly but surely a story begins to emerge of something Henry, the twins and Francis did in the woods before Christmas. Bunny was excluded but somehow found out what had happened and is now holding the group to ransom. They need Richard's help to solve this problem, but things have a habit of being much less straightforward than they at first seem. Richard is soon up to his neck in events he has no control over and suspects he has also only been told as much as Henry wants him to know. His life is no longer his own and he even wishes he'd stayed in California and never set foot in Vermont.
It's taken me over a week to read this 600 page chunkster. Was it worth it? Well yes, it was, although I must admit I'm glad I've now finished it. The story is dark with a very insular, claustrophobic atmosphere and, truthfully, it's not peopled by anyone that is particularly pleasant. Richard himself is rather amoral and the rest of the group of students are probably even worse. Their student lifestyles are totally dissolute... drink and drugs in abundance until, as a reader, you get a bit tired of hearing about it. I realise that after certain events the drinking was probably an escape but even so, it leaves one with rather a depressed view of students!
What has to be said is that the reason for being quite so involved with it all, as a reader, is the quality of Donna Tartt's writing. It's so good that you get sucked into this insular college world somewhere in the wilds of Vermont, and events that are bizarre and tragic even become quite reasonable and understandable. It's quite an achievement that such unpleasant people can have you concerned about their welfare when you're not actually reading the book but going about your daily life.
I have to make one confession and that is that after the first 40 - 50 pages I almost gave up on it. The story seemed not to be going anywhere and was too full of Greek references, so much so that I thought it might be over my head. I did 'O' level Greek Literature in Translation but it was 'years' ago so, although the names were familiar, not much else was. But I decided to continue and it was okay, I coped, and it really didn't matter that sometimes I didn't understand various references to characters in Greek mythology. The 'story' itself is less about the Greek and more about group dynamics in claustrophobic situations. At what stage do you stop blindly taking orders from someone who turns out to be less in control than you thought they were and very far from the perfect specimen they seemed to be originally? Donna Tartt's book is thought provoking and intelligent and reminded me rather a lot of A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine. If you liked one, you would probably like the other; I certainly did.