Book Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt
If I could describe this book in three words it would be: pretentious, thrilling, and murder. Some runner ups would be: Greek, tragic, intense, captivating and… well, you get the picture.
Here is the goodreads synopsis that is taken directly from the back of the book:
"Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last - inexorably - into evil."
This group of “misfits” is comprised of Richard, Henry, Francis, Charles, Camilla and Bunny. All of whom study Classics at a small liberal arts college in a place called Hampden in Vermont. Their field of study is incredibly important to the novel. Much of their love for the ancient Greeks is what drives the narrative. It leads them to participate in a Bachannal, a Dionysiac ritual that ends in bloodshed. Don’t worry! No spoilers here, this is told in the prologue (quite literally on the first page of the book). But this is what was so interesting to me. Donna Tartt starts the book off essentially implicating these characters in a murder. Then the story simultaneously unravels and comes together as you continue to read. Come together in the sense that you have to put the pieces together about what happened--because all we know is the end result--but unravel in the sense that everything you thought you knew about the characters becomes polluted and breaks down much of the facades they’ve all been fronting.
Though their professor, Julian, had quite a sway of influence over all of them, I’d say that Henry was more of the ringleader of the group. Yet it is still so much more complicated that that. I’ve finished the entire book, but I still feel like I’ll never fully understand the complicated relationships within it. This makes sense though because we see everything from the narrator, Richard’s, point of view and he was, unfortunately, not privy to much of what happens in the novel. Poor Richard is often finding out everything belatedly, something that normally I would find quite annoying, but told in Tartt’s style comes off as incredibly thrilling as he tries to put all the pieces together.
In actuality, Julian comes to play much less than I anticipated. Yet when he does appear you can feel such love and devotion that Richard and Henry and all the others feel toward him. It's pretty incredible. And honestly the same goes for Henry, to see all of their devotion to him was so interesting. As the reader I found myself drawn to him and I couldn’t even explain why. When Richard was in dire straits I found myself thinking, “Call Henry, he’ll know what to do!” This is something that gets addressed toward the end of the book and in hindsight I still can’t fully explain it! If you've read the book let me know if you've figured it out! Why do we love Henry? He's incredibly smart and devoted, but is he kind? Or warm? Or affectionate? Not really, and yet I freaking loved his character anyway!
In the same vein of thought, these characters are not entirely likable. Even Richard himself. I won’t spoil anything, but as we begin to see the layers peel pack from our characters, well, I was shocked at everything that comes to light: the way that they all carry themselves despite what they’ve done, the way that they all do unspeakable things and the reader is none the wiser, the way they damn anyone else as long as the lot of them are in the clear. The survival instinct here is intoxicating and irrational, but you can’t help but follow along with their plans. And there is so much more. Sometimes it is just a line here or there, but it shocks me nonetheless. If you read any review they'll talk about this. How none of these characters are particularly good people and yet Donna Tartt makes us care for them anyway. Well, she made me care for them. Haha. Isn't that something?
All in all, I loved this book, BUT I don’t think it is for everyone. Not everyone will enjoy a story about pretentious teens who drink too much alcohol and whose idea of a fun time is to try and recreate an ancient ritual. When I say this book and its characters come off as pretentious, I mean it! Even characters you come to love have a dark underbelly that paints them in an entirely different and often uncomfortable light. In many ways this wasn’t an easy read. Some of the things done and said are so backwards of how we think today that it made me want to face palm. Other things are just plain depraved. Also, Donna Tartt is clearly well read. I’m a Classics major. It’s one of the reasons I became interested in this book. Yet, even after 4 years of studying Classics I was reeling from all the classical references. There are so many that I think very few people actually understand them all, but then maybe that was the point. Regardless, I hope you read this book. I feel like its one that you can read a hundred times and still find something new every reread!