Book Review

The Secret History

The Secret History

  • Author: Donna Tartt
  • Genre: Literary Fiction
  • Publication Date: October 16, 1992
  • Publisher: Knopf

CONTENT WARNING: homophobia, murder, blood, gore, antisemitism, mention of death of an animal, heavy alcohol and drug use, prejudice, mention of incest, violence, suicide

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Storytelling in the grand manner, The Secret History is a debut remarkable for its hypnotic erudition and acute psychological suspense, and for the richness of its emotions, ideas, and language.

These are the confessions, years afterward, of a young man who found at a small Vermont college the life of privilege and intellect he’d long coveted — and rarely has the glorious experience of youth infatuated with knowledge and with itself been so achingly relieved. Then, amazed, Richard Paper is drawn into the ultimate inner circle: five students, worldly and self-assured, selected by a charismatic classics professor to participate in the search for truth and beauty. Together they study the mysteries of ancient Greek culture and spend long weekends at an old country house, reading, boating, basking in an Indian summer that stretches late into autumn.

Mesmerized by his new comrades, Richard is unaware of the crime which they have committed in his dreamy, unwitting presence. But once taken into their confidence, he and the others slowly and inevitably begin to believe in the necessity of murdering the one classmate and friend who might betray both their secret and their future.

Hugely ambitious and compulsively readable, this is a chronicle of deception and complicity, of Dionysian abandon, of innocence corrupted by self-love and moral arrogance; and finally it is a story of guilt and responsibility. An astonishing achievement by any standard, The Secret History immediately establishes Donna Tartt as a supremely gifted novelist.

After reading and thoroughly enjoying The Goldfinch, I was informed that this should definitely be on my list. So once I had the time to settle in with another absolute brick of a book, this was the one I chose. And while it was vastly different in scope and plot, it had the same kind of feel to it, somehow.

The first thing I noticed was that I struggled to notice the time period the story was set in. At first, it seemed like it was set in the 1960s, when the character mentioned that his peers weren’t aware that the moon landing had occurred. But as I continued reading, I kept bumping a decade forward, until finally I realized that it was set in the 1990s, when some pop culture references started appearing. It gave it more of a quaint feel than I was expecting.

The characters were well-created, although they were all massively flawed. Tartt doesn’t hide these flaws, making them seem even more realistic. Initially, we see only the narrators bad points, while the rest of the characters are viewed through a dreamy, almost distorted lens — the way you get when you don’t really know a group of people, only see them from the outside, but desperately want to become a part of their clique. But once Richard is accepted into their group, he starts to see more of who they really are, both the good and the bad. But by then, he’s already caught up in everything, and it’s too late to turn back. 

“I supposed there is a certain crucial interval in everyone’s life when character is fixed forever; for me, it was that first fall term I spent at Hampden. So many things remain with me from that time, even now: those preferences in clothing and books and even food—acquired then, and largely, I must admit, in adolescent emulation of the rest of the Greek class—have stayed with me through the years.”

Richard heads from California to Vermont in a journey to change his life. And he does exactly that, but not exactly in the way he expects. He’s admitted to an elite, highly exclusive program within the college, studying Greek classics. But in order to join, he has to devote all of his focus to this specific program, which sounds suspicious to me. Apparently, this isn’t strange to the rest of the college administration, who allow this program to flourish within the college, essentially delivering a handful of students to be taught by one professor for the duration of their schooling:

“‘I believe that having a great diversity of teachers is harmful and confusing for a young mind, in the same way I believe that it is better to know one book intimately than a hundred superficially,’ he said.”

Although the pace is relatively slow, the story starts out with talk of the murder. So we know what happens, and there’s plenty of foreshadowing that kept me interested through the meandering path of book. I appreciated the time Tartt took in letting me get to know the characters, the gradual disillusionment with them as Richard begins to lose his romantic ideals of these people he initially viewed from afar and then gets to see in a different light. 

“It is easy to see things in retrospect. But I was ignorant then of everything but my own happiness, and I don’t know what else to say except that life itself seemed very magical in those days: a web of symbol, coincidence, premonition, omen.”

However, this was more than just the story of a murder. It’s more of a psychological study of a group, the individuals within it, and how one unspeakable event can change the dynamics so dramatically that it can lead them all down a dark, irreversible path. I was fascinating with watching each of the characters implode, even as they each followed their own dark journey towards self-destruction. Drinking and drug use play heavy roles in the story, and there’s more than one manipulative, conniving character, but I was still invested in them all, although some more than others. 

“Some things are too terrible to grasp at once. Other things—naked, sputtering, indelible in their horror—are too terrible to really ever grasp at all. It is only later, in solitude, in memory, that the realization dawns; when the ashes are cold; when the mourners have departed; when one looks around and finds oneself—quite to one’s surprise—in an entirely different world.”

People who have sat around with me while I’m reading, especially when there’s a surprising reveal, a shocking plot twist, or an unexpected event often look up in alarm when I gasp audibly. The gasp factor is directly related to the number of times I audibly gasp during a reading, and there isn’t an upper limit.

Gasp Factor: 9

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