Book Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Book Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History by Donna Tartt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Secret History is one of those books that I’ve been meaning to read forever. According to my Kindle account, I purchased a copy more than five years ago; somehow, I just never got around to reading it. It’s one of those books that sounds so perfect for me that I’m afraid to read it for fear of it failing to meet the irrationally high expectations I have for it. When my co-blogger Emma informed me that it was one of her favorite books ever, I decided to take the plunge. I’m so glad I did. Far from failing to meet my absurd expectations, The Secret History blew them out of the water and is now happily ensconced on my favorites shelf.

“Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely?”

This novel is one of the most atmospheric school stories I’ve read outside of the fantasy genre. Tartt was able to capture her setting so well that I could smell and taste it and see it in my core. Richard, our wallflower of a narrator, works his way to Hampden College, leaving his bland suburban life in California behind in favor of a classier, more erudite fresh beginning in New England. Upon his arrival, he becomes fascinated with the intensely exclusive class of Classics majors, five in all, and their professor. They are enigmatic and effortlessly classy and everything else Richard wishes to be; he determines that he will do anything to join that selective class, and he manages it. That decision radically changes his life.

“If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn.”

The group dynamic reminds me of a darker Dead Poet’s Society, or a more academic Cruel Intentions. The conversations that fill the role of classes are profound and profoundly disturbing in their content, and Julian Morrow is an oddly captivating teacher. His larger than life personality compels his few students to see him as the axis around which their entire lives turn, and to feel such honor at being selected as one of his students that they can’t really see the world outside of his classroom. I was completely captivated by his philosophy, even though in reality our worldview are violently opposed.

“Love doesn’t conquer everything. And whoever thinks it does is a fool.”

While Julian is a hub around which the story spins, he is in no way its central character. Neither is Richard, when it comes down to it. He is an observer, first and foremost, and though he is undeniably involved in the plot, we see the other students in the group as the stars of the show through Richard’s eyes. First we have Bunny, who is larger than life and shameless in his mooching off of others in the group. We know from the first sentence of the novel that Bunny dies, and from the first page that the rest of the group murdered him. What we don’t know is why, and what events led to this radical decision. Then we have Charles and Camilla, beautiful twins who see etherial and fragile and tragic in the Gothic tradition. We also have Francis, the gay hypochondriac who is obsessed with physical appearance and incredibly high strung. Finally, we have Henry, the glue that binds the group together and the mastermind behind every decision. All five of these characters outclass Richard, coming from money or important families or both. Richard lies at every turn, doing everything in his power to slide comfortably and irrevocably into the heart of the group. And he succeeds.

“Reason is always apparent to a discerning eye. But luck? It’s invisible, erratic, angelic.”

Unfortunately, the group isn’t as charming up close is it is from a distance. I think the group of frenemies can be be described as mirroring the Classics that bind them: decaying beauty. All six of the students have this aloof magnetism that is utterly entrancing but, like Francis’s house in the country where they spend so much of their time, that beauty is brittle and beginning to rot. As the story progresses, we see the friends fall into various addictions and turn on each other as they inwardly decay further and further.

“What is unthinkable is undoable.”

What I adore most about this book is the unique setup of the plot. Rarely are readers informed from the beginning not only what the crime is, but who committed it, especially when said criminals aren’t in police custody. This would seem to remove the tension in the plot, but I found that it did the exact opposite. I was on the edge of my seat, wondering what triggered this chain of events and what the aftermath would be. I happened to be reading Crime and Punishment at the same time I read this book, and it’s wild how well the two stories pair. There was also a second, completely unpredictable climax towards the end of the book that shocked me. Tartt did a marvelous job balancing the pacing of the book. We were given so many details and ordinary elements of student life mixed with the tension and degradation that defined the group and led to both of the major climaxes of the story.

“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.”

Tartt also has an absolutely brilliant way with words. Every single word choice was intentional, and you could sense the care and craftsmanship she put into every sentence. Her prose is lovely, and I think I highlighted close to a quarter of the book. The tale she wove and the characters she crafted were unequivocally entrancing, and I caught myself thinking about them often throughout my days, even when I hadn’t read a page of it that day. Tartt did an amazing job with Richard, our narrator. Like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby and Charlie in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Richard is very much present in the story, but he does his best to blend in and observe what the fabulous people who have accepted him are doing with their lives. This writing choice lets readers view the action a bit more objectively than we could if the action was told from a more central perspective. Also, as with the aforementioned narrators, we’re informed early on in the story that our narrator is not the most reliable and trustworthy of storytellers, so we constantly question what’s being reported. In my opinion, this allows for a deeper involvement in the story, as we are called on to judge the truth of the narrative for ourselves.

“It does not do to be frightened of things about which you know nothing… You are like children. Afraid of the dark.”

The mix of classical orgy and frat party that defined the characters’ school days was such an interesting duality. It goes to show that human nature has not changed all that much in the past few millennia. Every discussion of religion and self and philosophy and sex and worldview was absolutely fascinating, and I hung on every word. The relationships between this group of friends was one that readers can see is both special in ways that we long for and horribly unhealthy for all parties involved. I also loved the setting. I have a weakness for school stories done well, and The Secret History is among the best I’ve read.

“They understood not only evil. It seemed, but the extravagance of tricks with which evil presents itself as good.”

Gushing aside, I loved this book with my entire being. I truly believe that it’s a modern classic, and it’s one I plan to reread often. While I can’t speak to the rest of her work, The Secret History alone proves that Tartt is a powerhouse of an author, and I’m already itching to read more from her.

You can purchase a copy of the book here, with free shipping worldwide!

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