Reading Tana French’s The Likeness reminded me of two other books which deal with groups of precocious youngsters – Donna Tart’s The Secret History and Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Let’s talk about The Likeness. The most obvious parallel is Donna Tart’s The Secret History which I really did not think was all that. If the main point of that novel was “the secret”, it was a let down. If the main point was the group, which I suspect it was, then meh. Maybe because I’m always slightly impatient with those “too cool for school” kids.
I think it is the deliberate crafting that goes into their individual and collective existences that puts me off. I tend to admire the illusion of effortlessness and I can respect the Kim Kardashian/Paris Hilton extreme artifice but with these “cool kids”, their stylishness is always showing. It’s like they try as hard as your average Kim Kardasian just in a relentlessly counter-cultural sort of way. The problem is that somewhere along the way, the counter part is lost in the conformity. Do I sound like I have a massive chip on my shoulder about “cool kids”? I’ll own it.
In both novels it’s not exactly clear to me what is so special about the groups involved. Okay in The Secret History, it’s that they are obsessed with Ancient Greece, but I dunno, they seemed to be to so closely role playing that it comes across as more odd than charming. I vaguely remember that they’re supposed to be beautiful, but the only one that sticks in the mind is the female twin, just as in The Likeness Rafe stands out for his looks. And then they’re mainly defined by being “chosen” by this one difficult teacher, which for me is a turn-off. Being a groupie/teacher’s pet does not a cool kid make in my book.
Thankfully, in The Likeness the group is not beholden to any particular teacher. They are wrapped up in each other and the whimsical desire to live some kind of communal life in the house one of them inherited. They are all Lit postgrads – thankfully not Classics majors again – and they seem to reject the trappings of modernity – the internet, texting and the pursuit of money.
The problem though is that although each of them has a different research interest which is spelled out, they don’t seem to talk about it or literature at all. Rather, they all blur into one amorphous lump of people lying around idylically stroking one another’s hair, repairing odd knickknacks that they find in the attic and occasionally painting the walls. Okay.
The Likeness is an improvement over The Secret History, both in terms of the fleshing out the individual, making them somewhat likeable and also in the actual mystery at the heart of it all. But the novel that I think does ‘cool kids’ the best is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
This classic by Muriel Spark is about a group of chosen one’s by a schoolteacher in Scotland. Each of the girls is special in her own way, even if one of them is special for being mediocre and basically the runt that gets picked on. Miss Brodie stands among them as a towering figure – one that we can admire even as her flaws become increasingly apparent.
Miss Brodie reminded me of our revered English Lit professor in college. She too had an aura about her, was a rebel who flouted authority and who edged us towards rebellion ourselves, whose life was a slap in the face of conventional morality that she saw herself as superior to. She also had her chosen ones – and the casual but cruel way that Miss Brodie goes about her choice reminded me retrospectively about this teacher too. If you were not in her inner circle you always felt slightly like a fish out of water. I wonder if she sneered at us like Miss Brodie did. I hope she was kinder, but Miss Brodie makes me suspicious.
I liked how each of the girls were allowed to grow up and outgrow Miss Brodie even though she remains the most profound influence on their lives. I loved how even as children, some of them defied her and how each of them had a personality, even though the whole thing is narrated through one surprising perspective. These girls too were defined by their choice of Latin in senior school – what is it with these classical languages – but somehow they are more interesting than the “too cool for school” types of The Likeness and The Secret History.
It just struck me – the only “cool kids” I can bear are the ones in Clueless who are such over-the-top parodies they are genuinely funny.
So, were you one of the “cool kids” in school or college? Did you want to be? Did you like The Secret History?