The Secret History by Donna Tartt
“We don't like to admit it, but the idea of losing control is one that fascinates controlled people such as ourselves more than almost anything. All truly civilized people – the ancients no less than us – have civilized themselves through the willful repression of the old, animal self.” (38)
I have given a five-star review to less than 5% of the books recorded on my Goodreads account, and The Secret History is now among the select few. That being said, I could easily understand why someone would dislike this book, or be simply unable to finish it.
The story is presented as Richard Papen’s reflection, as an older man, about his years at a small liberal college in Vermont. Having studied classical Greek for two years in high school back in California, he becomes infatuated with the college’s mysterious, exclusive Greek class, composed of five pretentious students and led by the strange yet charismatic Julian Morrow. He drops all his other studies to join the class and soon becomes wrapped up in a dark, secretive business that results in him and four of the others murdering their classmate (this is revealed on the first page of the book). The first half of the book is more of a mystery, with Richard slowly getting to know his eccentric classmates and becoming aware that something even stranger than he realized is going on. The climax is only about halfway through the book, and the rest details the repercussions of their actions and all six students’ slow descent into madness, immorality, and evil.
There are many things that I loved about The Secret History: it was intense, well written, complex, and suspenseful; the characters were, for the most part, fascinating and, for better or for worse, I saw aspects of myself reflected in them. As you might be able to tell from this winding, disjointed review, days later I've barely recovered from reading it. This all has a flipside, though: all of the characters are incredibly pretentious and annoying at times, which might make them distant and unrelatable for some. Even Richard, who is supposed to be a more average California kid, writes with a convoluted voice and vocabulary that some readers might find unnecessarily difficult.
It’s also very long. The 500+ pages went by quickly for me (it was such a page-turner that I finished in 2 days), but if you find yourself easily tired by winding, more old-fashioned style writing then this may not be the book for you. I found strong connections to John Knowles’ A Separate Peace and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, so I highly recommend fans of those books to check out The Secret History.
Note: there are COPIOUS amounts of drinking throughout the novel
Tartt, Donna. The Secret History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.
Review written by Needle, Teen Volunteer