Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I never wanted to read The Secret History, not after attempting to a few years ago. It was difficult to get into, uninteresting at the time. Had it not been for The Goldfinch I still wouldn’t have read it, and now I can easily say that Donna Tartt is one of the best authors I have read.

The Secret History blew my mind. Well paced, the intricacy of the characters allows you to effortlessly fall into the mind of Richard, the protagonist. There was nothing I disliked about this book.

‘Richard Papen arrived at Hampden College in New England and was quickly seduced by an elite group of five students, all Greek scholars, all worldly, self-assured, and, at first glance, all highly unapproachable. As Richard is drawn into their inner circle, he learns a terrifying secret that binds them to one another…a secret about an incident in the woods in the dead of night where an ancient rite was brought to brutal life…and led to a gruesome death. And that was just the beginning….’ Synopsis from GoodReads.

I didn’t want to review The Secret History, but it’s swimming about my head demanding attention.

As with each of Tartt’s novels, it was a labour of love. I cannot help but think of her method as the literary equivalent to ageing wine. This is the second of her novels I have read, having read The Goldfinch in May. Though much longer, I became caught in the fast pace of The Goldfinch. In comparison, a shorter novel, The Secret History is slower, but I love it more for it.

I imagine it’s partly due to my desire to attend an East coast American graduate school, but Richard Papen was easy to slip into. His actions, his reactions, I never questioned. Not, that is, while reading. Richard’s quest to fit in with the elitist Classical group selectively taught by the eccentric Julian, is fascinating in it’s realism. Anyone who has ever wanted to be part of a seemingly ‘cooler’ group, whatever the genre, will understand Richard’s need to prove himself.

Henry, Francis, Camilla, Charles and Bunny are (outwardly) what you would expect from well bred, affluent young intellectuals. Richard, in contrast, is a west coast bumpkin, uncouth and desperate to remove the poor undertones of his existence. Once accepted, though not integrated, by the group Richard falls into a world of conservative opulence these five upper class individuals occupy. Tartt manages to create these dysfunctional characters while avoiding clichés. It makes for beautiful reading.

Slowly the novel moves from Richard’s attempts to mould to the idiosyncrasies of the group, to murder. You are never able to hate Henry, Francis, Camilla or Charles for their actions, as Richard never does. He is too honoured by their inclusion, clouded by his admiration and love for them all, to allow negative judgement. You begin to agree with Henry, that Bunny must be stopped to protect the group, because that is how Richard feels. He enjoys protecting them. Had Bunny narrated even part of the story I know I would have looked on Henry’s stoicism, or Charles’ alcoholism, in a very different light.

Julian, in being as selective and pretentious, fosters a sense of superiority in the group. One that puts them above the law, as they parallel the classical cultures they are studying. Julian sets them up to fail, encouraging them to assimilate the classical codes of honour they study. They are given privilege and fail to see the honour of it, they accept it as the norm, as a right. Eventually all of them fail to meet the expectation; even Richard who will end up the most successful, is unhappy.

The Secret History is a tale told by a perpetual outsider. Emotionally separated from his parents, never quite part of the close-nit Classics group. He internalises, never completely connecting to anything. Henry discloses to Richard only what he wants Richard to know, and in this way Richard and Bunny had more in common than they realised. Both, no matter how Henry cared for them, were pawns in his plan for safety. And they loved him regardless. Henry is the point of power, the centre of their universe.

As each of the characters repress their guilt, the physical manifestations begin to show. Charles turns to drink, Francis suffers from sever anxiety, and Henry’s headaches intensify. Finally erupting in a dramatic, though unsurprising, turn of events – the group is irrevocably fractured.

By the end of the novel even I felt guilty, for hating Bunny, for accepting murder. Tartt’s writing is that wonderful, you become part of the story, part of her luscious prose. I cannot recommend reading The Secret History enough!

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16 Comments on "Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt"

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JacquiWine
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I read this book at the time of its publication, and recall being swept away by it – your review makes me want to revisit it at some point!

Frizbot
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RT @nomoreparades: Today’s Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt http://t.co/7DKDLnP3J6 #ofBooks

JacquiWine
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RT @nomoreparades: Today’s Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt http://t.co/7DKDLnP3J6 #ofBooks

Yasmine
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I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I am just getting round to writing up my thoughts on it now! I completely agree that Tartt has a way of making the reader almost not question Henry until Richard does – I felt exactly the same!

Violet
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I flicked through The Goldfinch and it didn’t seem like my kind of book at all. Everyone seems to love The Secret History, though, so maybe I’ll give it a try. It’s interesting how we can sometimes come back to a book that wasn’t right for us, and then find we love it the second time around.

Jenny @ Reading the End
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Tartt does totally make you part of the story. You get drawn in and end up feeling complicit in everything that happens. And also — yeah, you are never EVER able to hate Henry. Even at the end, when there’s a serious question about whether he’s considering killing another of his friends, I was still (like Richard) more enthralled by him than frightened.

Charlie
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A book that makes you agree with wrongness, well it sounds scary, almost, but obviously succeeds in its aims. I’ll have to keep it in mind (seeing the length of The Goldfinch I’d pretty much passed on Tartt).

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[…] The Secret History by Donna Tartt […]

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[…] is seductive to the point where I, like Richard, wanted to be a part of their clique. As Alice from ofBooks writes in her recent review: ‘By the end of the novel even I felt guilty, for hating Bunny, […]

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[…] picked up the wrong book. (if there is such a thing of course).  However, I am taking courage from Alice at Of Books and her words on The Secret […]