The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Is there anyone left in the world who hasn’t read this, or was it just me?! This is the June choice for the V&A Book Club, and I was very glad it was chosen, as I’ve been wanting to read it for years and have never got around to it. Its popularity was a factor; as you all know, I don’t like to read hyped up contemporary fiction (even though this is nearly 20 years old now), and also, the length had put me off. However, Book Club demanded that I read it, and so on the plane with me it came. My initial reaction was of boredom and turgidness; it was difficult to get into, wordy, detailed, intense. However, by the time I got off the plane, I was absorbed in the story, and couldn’t stop reading until I finished it the next day. It was an odd experience, reading this; I enjoyed it, but in the surreptitious, slightly guilty way you enjoy eating a McDonald’s…I felt a little bit dirty every time I emerged from the world within, but when I was reading, it was so good, so satsfying, that I was willing to put up with the after effects.

I was surprised by the opening of the book, as it subverts the usual expectations of a mystery by revealing the conclusion at the beginning. We know from the first page that Bunny, one of the main characters, will die, before we’ve met any of the protagonists in this story. We also know that he was murdered by his friends.  I initially wondered whether there would be much suspense involved in a story where the ending was already known, but I soon discovered that true suspense comes from discovering the whys, hows, and whats that could possibly have led to such a dramatic conclusion. Who was this cool narrator, Richard Papen, so insistent that he was not an evil person, not someone to be feared, and who were these friends of his who assisted him in this act of extinguishing the life of another, so callously? Why was Bunny in particular chosen to be murdered; what had he done? And where was Richard narrating this from, and at what time? What had the consequences been of their actions? Was Richard in jail? There was so much I needed to unravel, so much I was hungry to find out, and Donna Tartt so skillfully teased out the events, so emotionally involved me with the characters, so convinced me, through Richard, that their actions were understandable, excusable, even, that I felt I was there, living it with them, tensed with fear and foreboding, hanging on every word coming from Richard’s mouth. I haven’t ever read anything quite like it, and I thought it was absolutely, breathtakingly, magnificent.

The plot centres around a group of five Classics students at an exclusive Vermont college, Hampden. The eccentric, God like professor of Greek, Julian, picks his students carefully, and he has chosen a select group of attractive, intelligent and wealthy young men and one woman to take his class, allowing no one else in. Henry, the leader of the pack, is a quiet, enigmatic, incredibly intelligent twenty one year old with a mind stuck in Ancient Greece. His hold over the others is one of a father to children; they all respect him, and look to him for protection, direction, acceptance. Francis is more of a shadowy figure; kind, considerate, and the homosexual of the group. Camilla and Charles are elfen like orphaned twins, devoted to one another, eccentric, and highly personable, they are the most endearing of the group, despite the faint whiff of potential incest they carry with them. Finally there is the floppy, loveable Bunny, whose relationship with the group will swiftly turn so sour that he gets murdered by them. Into this motley crew arrives Richard, a disillusioned aesthete from small town California, poor, downtrodden, desperate for some meaning in his life, and a connection with the glamour of this select group of charmed individuals. He bluffs his way into Greek class by spinning a web of lies about his true background, and so keen is he for acceptance into the inner sanctum of Julian’s lair, that when the shocking discovery of his new friends’ true natures is revealed, instead of walking away, he finds himself drawn deeper into their lives, becoming irrevocably entangled in a course of events that will go on to destroy all of them.

It is a remarkable novel, in that Richard’s narration, so reasonable, so reflective, so filled with regret, left me feeling no disgust for these mere children, whose cossested upbringings and naive intellect, with no knowledge of the real world, left them incapable of dealing with the consequences of actions they never truly meant to take. Bunny is the most difficult of the characters to read about;  wonderfully vulnerable, hilarious and endearing, knowing he will die is hard at first, but then when his character changes, and his motives and jealousies come to light, it’s almost easy to believe that he deserved what he got, and in doing so, Tartt makes her readers just as bad as the characters they feel they are morally superior to. Richard’s narration is, of course, geared towards making him out to be blameless, not your typical murderer, hardly someone to despise, and this ulterior motive always hangs at the back of your mind, making you wonder whether the interpretations of characters’ actions and intentions was always accurate, or glamorised, softened, excused, by a still desperate to be accepted, flattered, included, loved, Richard. For this is the centre of the story; Richard could be any one of us. He is not a cruel, calculating man. He acted as he did because he wanted to be part of something bigger than himself; included, accepted, trusted, part of the gang. He wanted to fit in, at any cost. This is what frightened me the most about this book; this story, the shocking events it describes and the reasons behind them, are understandable. They make sense. Who among us is strong enough to stand alone, to face loneliness, exclusion, exile from those we love, even if the alternative causes us to sell a piece of our souls to preserve what we most treasure? Humans need to belong, and this herd mentality, so disturbingly easy to become a force of menace, is what ultimately forms the fate of these individuals who had so much promise.

I can’t describe this novel adequately enough to express its brilliance. There is so much richness, so much symbolism, so much I could talk about, it would take me days to write it all down. It’s not even all doom and gloom; alongside the intensity of the story of Richard and his classmates, there were moments of such hilarity in the descriptions of university life; living in dorms, parties, awkward room mates and friends made merely for convenience, all so close to the bone I couldn’t help laughing at their absolute pinpoint accuracy. It perfectly captures the sheer awkwardness of being in your early twenties, of being an adult without the experience or maturity to cope with the life adulthood throws at you, of the desire to shake off your past, to become someone else, and to find a place and people amongst whom you belong. It is also a terrifying exploration of how one simple decision can change the course of lives, and of how easy it is to find your life spiralling out of control, without the ability or strength of character to take back the reins. The Secret History will haunt me for a long time, I think. If you haven’t read it, you must. It will make you question what’s really in that heart of yours, and what you might too be capable of in Richard’s place. Not an easy read, not by any means, but one I wouldn’t have missed for the world. Donna Tartt is an incredible writer. I can’t wait to read her other novel.

56 comments

  1. I haven’t read it. I try and try, but I always end up hitting a point where I start to skim and then I lose the thread of the narrative.

    I loved “The Little Friend” but I have never finished it due to the same problem.

    I think Donna Tartt is just too smart for me.😉

    1. Oh no! I know what you mean – it’s hard to get into at first but if you persevere it really is worth it!

      No – she’s not too smart! You just have to be in the right mood is all!

  2. Ditto what Diane said. It has been quite a while since I read this but I remember loving it. Kept it which is always a good sign with me. The literary mystery has great appeal to me (even if I know the outcome at the start).

    1. That’s always a good sign with me too – I like to kid myself that I’ll reread the books I love one day but of course the deluge of new books always prevents me from the indulgence of rereading!

      Literary mysteries really appeal to me too – I love them!

  3. “I initially wondered whether there would be much suspense involved in a story where the ending was already known, but I soon discovered that true suspense comes from discovering the whys, hows, and whats that could possibly have led to such a dramatic conclusion. ”

    Yes! This one does do that so well. I just read Water for Elephants, which tried the same technique, but didn’t offer enough of that crucial unraveling. I remember liking this one, but I had more trouble with the murder aspect than you. It just was too implausible in my world.

    1. Doesn’t it just?! It is a little bit implausible and I think if they were a normal, rational bunch of people then they would never have done it, but their slightly surreal outlook on life convinced me that they would find such desperate measures necessary.

  4. I, too, began reading this book on a plane. It was slightly difficult to get into, probably because I was on said plane, but, by the time I landed in Germany, I was obsessed.

    What was strange was that, at the beginning, I kept thinking of the narrator as female. Sometimes I forgot, and kept getting shocked at moments when Richard acted like any other guy.

    I think you’re right about feeling guilty reading it. At the end, it was like I’d killed Bunny. Excellent book and review.

    1. It’s funny, isn’t it? Really hard work at first and then suddenly something just clicks and you’re lost in it. That’s really interesting about finding Richard quite a female voice – I suppose he is, in a way, and I always do think that when women write in a male voice, there’s never that true ring of gender authenticity. I’m glad you felt a bit weird and guilty too – I thought I must have let myself get too involved in the story for my own good!

  5. You are not the last person to read this–I haven’t read it! I think it was published at a time when I simply wasn’t reading any modern fiction. It is on my someday list though. I love crime novels where you know the outcome from the beginning. You’d think there’s no suspense, but I think the suspense is just different. Watching the story unfold, knowing it will lead to disaster–it’s just all so intense.

    I did read The Little Friend and thought it was ok, but just ok, and now I remember nothing about it!

    1. Oh well! That makes me feel better!I think you’d really enjoy this – don’t let your experience with The Little Friend put you off! I’m not used to crime novels that start back to front but I really enjoyed the change in perspective of what exactly was the mystery with this so I am going to be on the lookout for similar stories in future.

  6. I liked The Secret History better than Little Friend, but I really enjoy her style. Have you read Tana French? Her books grab you a little better, and her style is superb as well. I wish Ms. Tartt would write another..

    1. Her style is excellent, I agree. No I haven’t – I shall have to look her up. According to wikipedia she has another book coming out in 2012 so not tooo long to wait!

  7. mmm…Tartt’s books are amazing – so long and detailed but really repay the time put into them. I think I preferred Little Friend, but I really wish she’d write another one – mind you I think there were ten years between the first two so it might be a while…

    1. *Ahem* Apparently the decade between books is her regular schedule. Taken from Wikipedia:

      “The new novel, as yet untitled, is a story of loss and obsession about a young man, guilt-stricken and damaged after the death of his mother, and the growing power that a stolen piece of art exercises over him, drawing him into an underworld of theft and corruption where nothing is as it seems. Publication is scheduled for 2012.”

      1. I saw that too! I think Donna Tartt must have quite a dark mind…nice job if you can get it, taking 10 years to write a book!

    2. That’s interesting -you seem to be the opposite to everyone else in preferring The Little Friend, Verity! I’m definitely going to try it anyway as I love her writing style and don’t think she could go too far wrong!

  8. I love this book and have read it twice but was very disappointed in The Little Friend.
    This ia a polarising novel: people love it or hate it.

    1. I think you’re right – it’s the sort of book that either really resonates with you or leaves you bored and unable to get through it. A lot of people seem to be less than enamoured by The Little Friend – I suppose The Secret History is a hard book to follow.

  9. I really enjoyed this when I read it, mind you I have to say I had a very similar approach to you. I didnt want to like it and almost felt a grudge to read it. I didn’t have a book group as a reason though just a mother who teaches classics and wouldnt stop going on about it hahaha.

    I realy, really got into, after the wordy start you mention and its a book thta pays off dividends. Yet again, delightful review.

    Oh and I think this maybe one of my favourite book review sentences ever… I enjoyed it, but in the surreptitious, slightly guilty way you enjoy eating a McDonald’s!!!

    1. Ha! I’m glad your mother pushed you to read this! Glad you enjoyed the book as much as me, and the review – I always say to my friends I feel dirty after eating McDonalds and I felt the exact same dirtiness after reading this, and couldn’t think of any better analogies!

  10. This is my favourite novel of all time. Yes it is! But I’ve been too scared to re-read it but I think I may have to now. I’m so glad you liked it, and as usual, a beautiful review. Her next book didn’t have the same emotional punch as The Secret History, but I love her writing style and can’t wait to see what she’s going to bring out next.

    1. Wow! That’s quite something. I wouldn’t say it was my favourite but it’s definitely a book I am very glad I read. I know what you mean about rereading – I am afraid to reread a lot of my favourites too, in case the spell is broken the second time over. I’m intrigued to read The Little Friend now – such mixed reviews!

  11. You weren’t the last person to read it; I am in the camp who haven’t read it either, for the same reasons you hadn’t until now. I have read The Little Friend and wasn’t bowled over but did enjoy Tartt’s style.

    1. I think you should read it Claire – it’s definitely up your street! Yes a lot of people seem to feel the same about The Little Friend…I’m interested to see how I will react to it. The Secret History is so good that I suppose it’s difficult for her to live up to it in subsequent books.

  12. I loved this book, too, but never read The Little Friend. Too many less than glowing reviews… am encouraged to hear Verity liked it better though.

    1. Yes…they make me a little reluctant, especially as I’m sure it’s just as much of a doorstop as The Secret History, but I am intrigued to read it!

  13. I must confess this book has been sitting in my TBR pile for years. Since I have made a pledge not to buy anymore books until I whittle the pile down either by reading or by donating the TBR books, perhaps–based on your very positive review–I will start on this one.

    As a side note, I’m an avid reader of mysteries and many mysteries (generally of the “psychological suspense” variety) do actually let you know from the first who the guilty party is. It’s the “why-dunnit” versus the “who-dunnit” factor.

    1. I think that would be an excellent idea – it’s always good to get the chunksters out of the way first!

      That’s so interesting! I love that – why-dunnit! I don’t read a lot of mysteries so my knowledge of them isn’t great, I must say! I do want to read more though – I love the suspense!

  14. Rachel – lovely insightful review – I must admit that i put off reading this for some time for the same reason as you but when I did get around to it, I was pretty much spell bound and thought that it was powerful and accomplished. I then read tartt’s next novel – The Little Friend – which I believe she took many years to write and I did not enjoy it as much sadly. I really enjoyed the reversed drama of The Secret History – I thought that worked really well to create character related suspense.
    Hope that you are enjoying your holiday and are drenched in sunshine!
    Hannah

    1. Thank you Hannah – I’m glad you’re a fan as well! I would really like to read The Little Friend though I have lowered my expectations after the less than enthusiastic comments I’ve received about it! Thanks so much – I really did have a lovely holiday.

  15. Aagghh…I started reading your review but it sounded so good that I had to stop…reviewus interruptus! You were most definitely not the last person to read this book, apparently, that would be me!

  16. I join Darlene in not having yet read it, so there are at least two of us. Actually I was only recently lamenting the fact and even bought a used paperback for handy carrying around in my bookbag (I own it in cloth–bought it when it came out….how have I never gotten around to reading it?). Will return to your post to read in total at a later date. I did read The Little Friend–I was expecting something along the lines of this book (only knowing what it’s about peripherally), but it was very different so I was disappointed. I think it may have been my fault rather than the book’s.

    1. TWO copies means you must have a real desire to read it Danielle – I hope you will be spurred on to start as it really is a rewarding read!

      I think everyone (apart from Verity!) felt a bit let down by The Little Friend, so you’re not alone!

  17. I loved this book, so much so I have read it twice and will probably re-re-read it. Not so keen on The Little Friend, the start was promising but it didn’t grab and hold me in the same way as The Secret History, so I was slightly disappointed….

    Great review

    1. Well! That is love! I think I’ll need to leave it a while to re-read this, but it’s definitely a book I’d like to revisit in the future. There’s so much in it that I think more layers would open up to me on a subsequent reading.

  18. Your description of how you felt about this book matches my memory of reading it exactly – especially the slightly guilty feeling. I think it’s because it was so much what the Victorians would have called sensational. :p To me there is nothing more nerve-wrackingly suspenseful than a story about someone who has done a very wicked deed, and you are waiting to see them get caught (or not). That’s why Macbeth is my favorite one of Shakespeare’s tragedies.

    I hate to add to the Little Friend-hating chorus, but I tried twice to read it and disliked it very very much. Like Danielle, I was expecting something similar to The Secret History. Maybe if you waited a while before reading The Little Friend, you might have a different reaction to it.

    1. Ha! I could have guessed that you would have had the same reaction as me! It is so suspenseful in that sense…especially the part when they were all getting questioned, and they were all clearly as guilty as sin, and I thought someone will notice! and no one did.

      Shame – I think I’ll take a breather from Donna Tartt, clear my mind of expectations, then try The Little Friend. I might fare better that way!

    1. Glad to hear there are some people whom this has passed by as well! You must read it – it’s a real meaty book you can get super involved in, so great for a holiday read.

  19. The funny thing is that I remember enjoying this at the time I read it (although agree that it felt a bit turgid to begin with) but then I can’t remember really what it was all about. Odd. Perhaps I have filled my brain with too many stories! Great review – glad you were pleasantly surprised by this one after a slow start.

    1. Ha! That happens to me all the time – I know I loved a book, but ask me to describe the plot or the characters, and I can never quite remember the exact details!

      Thanks – it really was a brilliant read and much better than I thought it was going to be!

  20. A tantalizing review of a book that has intrigued me and I laughed aloud at your charming comment of reading it with the same sort of guilty delight as a MacDonald’s, which describes so many of my guilty little pleasures in life; and ice cream cone or a truffle when no one is looking. tee hee

    I have had book encounters where one sits upon a shelf to be picked up, a few pages read, put back until one day, long after its purchase, there it is and the time is right for a read. I will be on the lookout for The Secret History.

    PS You would love Vermont, especially in autumn, though winter has its own delights.

    1. Hahaha! I’m glad you can relate Penny, and that you enjoyed the review. I am sure you would enjoy this – it’s a real meaty saga, though perhaps more one for a long winter evening than a hot summer’s day. Oh gosh, Vermont is a place I am DESPERATE to visit. I have been entranced by photos of it…one day!

  21. I just read this. Glad I found your review–I want to talk with other people who’ve recently read the book!

    Do people find Richard sympathetic? I found him colossally, terrifyingly unsympathetic. I thought the message here was a bit like that of Roman Polanski’s Death & The Maiden–god only knows what the person who lives next door is capable of. Richard was the only one who wasn’t broken by Bunny’s murder, and there’s a reason for that.

    Anyway, Tartt’s a great writer. I enjoyed this book so much–vividly, richly imagined. Fully absorbing, although I didn’t find it a page-turner as other people did. I’m also confused by booster quotes that refer to it as “intricately plotted.” I thought the plot was so simple it almost wasn’t there. But the characterization was tremendous.

    1. Hi Kari, it’s nice to meet you!

      That’s interesting. I found Richard sympathetic from the respect that he was so desperate to fit in, but I was also infuriated at him for not having the guts to walk away from his destructive group of friends. And yes, the lack of remorse he feels is highly disturbing.

      Yes she is a brilliant writer and excellent at sucking you into her world. I did find it a page turner but at the same time I didn’t always want to keep reading, as I found it incredibly disturbing. Good point about the plot – though a plot has to be pretty intricately writen to become invisible, one could argue! I thought the plot was quite complex actually – not in a linear way but in all the back stories and motivations etc.

  22. Loved loved loved ‘The Secret History’. One of my favourite books of all time. ‘The Little Friend’ was a disappointment in that I kept thinking ‘there’s going to be the most amazing denoument…’ and at the end nothing really happened.

  23. I just finished reading Donna Tartt’s newest book, The Goldfinch. I have just started re-reading it. I was not that impressed with the book until I had read about three quarters of the 771 pages.

    But, by the end, I was intrigued and impressed enough to start right back in again!

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