Review: The Secret History, Donna Tartt

Yeah, I remember the rule. I remember the exception to the rule. It turns out Animal Farm is exactly what you get when you make rules that you know you want to break. I started jonesing so hard for The Secret History, and when I saw it at a book sale last week, I was all, Blah blah rationalization, this copy here is a trade paperback and my copy is only mass market, this and that, it’d be better to have this copy than my copy.

Once I got it home, I tried to kid myself that I wasn’t going to read it. I checked out five books from the university library that I’ve been wanting, and I started reading (and enjoying!) one of them. But you know how when you are craving one particular book with all of your being, that book suddenly becomes Plato’s book? And all the other books in the world, which were perfectly reasonable a few days ago, are suddenly just shadow-illusions on the cave walls? That’s what happened to me. After a while I gave in. I’m only human.

When I read this book the first time, on my study abroad year, I was enthralled. I skipped all my Friday classes (and I only had classes on Tuesday and Friday) because I couldn’t bear to stop reading long enough to talk about the symbolist imagination. However, I considered it possible in retrospect that this was a function of my state of mind at the time. I was very depressed (bad meds + far from home + constant massive fights with then-boyfriend), and I felt very, very intense about nearly everything I read. I sobbed over Emily of New Moon and thought about how it was all just a Symbol For My Life. I hated We Have Always Lived in the Castle and sobbed because I had no good books to read and that was just a Symbol For My Life. So as you can imagine, I have been doubting the remembered intensity of my The Secret History reading experience. I suspected it would all be much more chill this time around.


The Secret History is about a boy called Richard who goes to a small liberal-arts college in Vermont, joins a strange, exclusive Classics program, and makes friends with the strange, exclusive Classics students, of which there are five apart from him: patrician orphaned twins Charles and Camilla; louche, studious Henry; wealthy Francis with a house in the country; and the bigoted joker Bunny. Richard, who comes from a poorish California family, has made up a complicated mess of lies about his background and is anxious to be friends with all of these people. They become friends, and one thing leads to another, and they end up killing Bunny.

To me, there are few things more suspenseful than stories about people who have committed crimes and might get found out. The Scottish play has me practically screaming with tension every time I read it, and The Secret History is just the same. I was deeply resentful of every life intrusion (work, meals, sleep) that kept me from carrying on reading it straight through. I was even forced to the expedient of reading it while walking to and from work, an activity at which I am very skilled but in which I prefer not to engage, as it reminds me embarrassingly that Past Jenny (in her tween years) felt that reading while walking proved to everyone else that she was above the things of this world. Oh, Past Jenny.

The adjective I would use for this book, and please appreciate that this is a high compliment from me, is elegant. Tartt has a trick of having her characters reveal things casually that shock the narrator and the reader, and at the same time seem perfectly plausible, indeed inevitable. Her characterization is sharp and yet ambiguous enough that you are not sure, when the book ends, who has done what and for what reasons. As Richard wonders about the behavior of each of his friends, you wonder too; you flip back and reread certain passages, trying to tease out the motives of each of the characters in light of what you now know. It’s not showy, the way she does it. It’s elegant.

Plus, you know, as a classics geek, I love it that this book makes Latin students seem super dangerous and dark and edgy. This is not necessarily the typical portrayal of Latin students, but it appeals to me: Watch out for us classics people. We are loose cannons and might push you off a cliff if you cross us. Or we might not. YOU JUST DO NOT KNOW.

In sum, this book is just as gripping as I remembered, and I also think it is an incredibly good book, what with all the writing and the characterization and the making you sympathize with murderers and the LATIN STUDENTS CAN KILL YOU. Read it, please, if you haven’t already. I feel like I have been going around saying lukewarm things about it since reading it a few years ago, when really it deserved raves. If I said something lukewarm to you about this book, disregard it! Listen to me now when I say it is superb and you must read it tomorrow. I would like to turn around and read it all over again, except that would be pushing things a little far, when I have these Dodie Smith memoirs and these amusing Lissa Evans books and Juliet Gardiner’s The Thirties sitting on my couch.

When I lent this book to my sister, she said it was basically Special Topics in Calamity Physics with older, less sympathetic characters. This isn’t altogether fair, but there is a certain family resemblance. The Secret History is more tense, and more polished, and I tend to feel that the group of students is better characterized in it than in Special Topics. Special Topics has that raw, intriguing style of writing, and a more twisty and complex plot. I think if you enjoyed one, you’d be fairly likely to enjoy the other; but if you disliked one, it’s still perfectly plausible that you’d like the other.

What other people thought:

things mean a lot
the stacks my destination
Book Snob
reading is my superpower
Stella Matutina
Flight into Fantasy
Stephanie’s Confessions of a Book-A-Holic
Six Lit[erate] Chicks
The parenthesis and the footnote
Seriously Reading

Let me know if I missed yours!