Confession: I read “The Secret History,” by Donna Tartt, and enjoyed it, but it did not change my life. Nor did it make me long for new versions of its plot about a cabal of college students who take part in a crime they spend years hiding. But Tartt’s 1992 novel appears to have made an impression on debut novelist Emily Temple. (Full disclosure: Temple is an editor at Literary Hub, where I am a contributing editor, but we have neither met nor corresponded.) Temple’s book, “The Lightness,” places a group of wounded and ornery teenage girls at “a panspiritual contemplative community” retreat in the mountains where the gardener is a man-bun-sporting slice of heaven named Luke. What could go wrong?
Despite my lukewarm memories of “The Secret History,” I rode along happily for much of Temple’s book. The narrator, Olivia, arrives at the Levitation Center for its annual summer program aimed at young women whose families despair of their behavior – or, as is Olivia’s case, just want to unload their daughters for a month or two. After her father disappears, Olivia runs away, “if you can really call it running away when you leave plain tracks and credit card receipts and no one bothers to come after you.” Olivia’s father is a dedicated Buddhist and devotee of the center who believes it is one of the only places in the U.S. where meditation-induced levitation is possible.
Luke has supposedly achieved levitation, so Olivia and the friends to whom she becomes attached – Laurel, Serena, Janet – circle around him, at first cautiously, then with abandon. Temple makes this melodramatic trope work thanks to her unusual, clipped and funny style. “Men are always comparing naked women to other things,” Temple writes, “as if our exposed flesh is too bright to be experienced without simile. As if bare breasts won’t blind you if they’re cans, cantaloupes.” She’s a gifted writer and storyteller with an unwavering command of her plot.
The plot she’s chosen remains melodramatic, however: Hormone-drunk adolescents fall for something part spiritual, part magical, and go too far – way, way too far. The four friends constantly touch and stroke and lounge on one another in what might be a realistic view of young female sexuality if it weren’t combined with all their scheming and manipulation to have Luke teach them the secrets of levitation.
All will be revealed, which readers know because an adult Olivia is narrating this tale with years of hindsight and more than a little ruefulness. “Does this constant tracing and retracing make me less the witness, or more?” she wonders. “I mean, After going over the events of that summer again and again, she has learned, supposedly the hard way, that believing too much in any one thing can break your heart. That lesson doesn’t amount to much for the reader, though, despite all the promise of Temple’s immense talent.
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