Book Review: “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt

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Donna Tartt is the bestselling author of The Goldfinch, The Little Friend, and The Secret History. Each of these novels involves suspense and intense character studies.

The Secret History is about an eclectic group of college students who find themselves in a lot of trouble as close-kept secrets are revealed.

Mild spoilers ahead.

What The Secret History gets right: Terrible people doing terrible things? Check. Secrets, murder, drugs, and pagan rituals? Check. An engrossing setting, to the point that you feel like you are actually in the book? Check.

Donna Tartt is excellent at drawing you in to the world that she’s created. Right away, you are introduced to a bizarre crime, and the rest of the book has you scrambling to figure out how the story ends up there.

Any book with an unreliable narrator is going to have your brain spinning, but few books do this quite so well as The Secret History. A lot of the book’s events and character development is seen through the eyes of someone who slowly begins to realize that he doesn’t really know that much about anything after all. This allows the reader to piece together the puzzle, and guess what? Some of it is entirely up to your imagination! I guessed several twists accurately throughout the book, but there were a few that weren’t fully explained (such as the characters’ true motivations and feelings).

Reading about Richard, the story’s narrator, and his university experiences in Hampden reminded me of both my own time in college and the college students that I manage at work. I loved seeing the dichotomy between Richard and his friends’ great intellect and their terrible decision-making and lifestyle habits. How can they be so intelligent as to speak to each other in Latin one minute and then try to live in a freezing warehouse in the middle of a Vermont winter the next? Honestly, this dichotomy is pretty realistic for what I recall of myself and my friends in that stage of life.

Richard wanting to be a part of the strange but exotic Greek students group is a relatable feeling. It can be hard to find your place in a new environment; however, you don’t want to pick the wrong group of people that everyone else warns you about (as Richard inevitably does). Henry, Francis, Charles, Camilla, and Bunny are in turns fascinating, terrifying, hilarious, and deeply disturbing people; as Richard gets sucked further and further into their sordid lives, so do we.

In spite of the sometimes flowery prose and the pretentious characters who are spouting Greek one moment and stoned out of their minds the next, I couldn’t put this book down. It’s a testament to Donna Tartt’s writing that she made such unlikable characters and their various crimes so intriguing and their college, despite its obvious flaws, so nostalgic.

What The Secret History gets wrong: Most of the characters in this book are unlikable. It’s kind of like a modern The Great Gatsby in that way- still a great story, but you may get annoyed by how pretentious and selfish the characters are. (Side note: the main character’s favorite book is The Great Gatsby because he identifies with Jay Gatsby, which is hilarious because he is totally a Nick Carraway instead.)

Who should read The Secret History: Readers who enjoy academia, mythology, suspense, crime, and literary writing.

Who shouldn’t read The Secret History: Readers who are looking for a shorter, faster-paced story. It’s easy to get lost in the world of The Secret History, but the plot does take a while to develop. This is a dark story that explores the evil in human nature, so if you’re looking for a light read, don’t pick this one up yet.

 

The Secret History is available in our Recreational Reading section at the library.

Content note: violence; sexual content (most of which happens off-screen); moments of racism, homophobia, and sexism from a few characters; lots of substance abuse; pagan rituals. Reader discretion is advised.