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.

NOPE.

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!

73 thoughts on “Review: The Secret History, Donna Tartt

    • Ha, I’m rubbish. As I was searching for reviews on the Book Blogs Search Engine, I thought, didn’t Rachel do a review of this recently? and I was going to go look on your blog. But then my browser froze and had to be restarted, and I forgot. :p

    • Congratulations!!! I can’t imagine it was a very restful read while getting ready to have a baby, but it’s certainly a very exciting one. :)

  1. Love your review! I loved ‘The secret history’ – I definitely get a buzz from reading such elegantly written literature as well, must have been extra special reading it as a classics geek…

    • Yep, it made me feel like my Latin IV class was fraught with peril, if I’d only known it. There were actually five of us in that Latin class of mine, so I was trying to assign roles, but the gender ratio was all off. :p

  2. I get all books with the word ‘history’ in the title confused. The History of Love? The Historian? The Secret History!? OK, I think I’ll have a mini-challenge to read these so I can keep them straight in my head.
    and I do FEAR you, you Latin/classics geek.

    • I have read two of those three books (both in England, now that I think about it–England must make me think of history), so I do not get them confused. Read this one! And History of Love if it sounds good to you! But The Historian kind of drags, as I recall.

  3. My daughter is starting Latin in a few weeks! She’ll be in eighth grade — a teenaged Latin student. Now I’m scared to death. But she’s more interested in the Latin of Harry Potter.

    BTW, I’ve given you a Versatile Blogger Award. Thanks again for all the great reviews!

    • Aw, thanks! You’re so sweet.

      Good for your daughter! My Latin classes were by far my favorites in middle and high school, and that held true even when I didn’t have a great teacher (as I did in high school). I do not think she will kill anyone, but if she starts talking about trying to hold a bacchanal, maybe gently dissuade her. :p

    • I’m not a big mystery person either, but this isn’t really a mystery. You know whodunnit (the other Latin students) and how (cliff), so the story’s all about how they got to the point of murdering him, and what happened next. Not mysteryish at all really.

  4. I read this awhile back and it floored me. I couldn’t let go of them and for a time Henry’s a voice in my head. Richard too.

    Funny that I am reminded of this book after seeing a synopsis of another book (Ivo Stourton’s The Night Climbers) yesterday. It seems it’s a story about young men and women meeting at a college and one of them, like Richard, isn’t rich. Something to that effect. I didn’t buy that one though I almost did, something about the gargoyle called to me (and that’s due to another book titled The Gargoyle, hahaha). Maybe it’s a good book, maybe it isn’t. But the back blurb reminds me of Tartt’s story so much I simply couldn’t buy it. Yet.

    Hmmm, I also have a copy of Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Been meaning to read that for sometime now. Gee, I’ve been meaning to read a lot of books so eh, I should either start reading them or at least take them out of my shelves as a gentle reminder of my uh, failure to read them :)

    • I enjoyed Henry so much this time around. I hadn’t remembered from last time the extent to which this book is about Henry–he’s sort of the sun and the others all revolve around him, don’t you think? I loved it when they started questioning his motives, and then I started questioning them too…Amazing.

      Special Topics in Calamity Physics is very good. I support your reading it.

  5. I read this a few years ago, and loved it so much! It was probably one of the better books I have ever read. Recently I have been thinking that I’d like to read another one of her books since I lived this one so much. Great review, Jenny! I love your enthusiasm over it!

    • Yes, I remembered it as a slightly guilty pleasure, for some reason, but actually it’s a genuinely fantastic book. Well-written, well-characterized, page-turning–couldn’t ask for more!

      I know the author’s written another book, The Little Friend, that’s more sort of Southern than this one (she’s from Mississippi herself, I believe). I started it once and didn’t care for it at all, but I’m kind of wanting to give it another try. If you do read it I’ll be very interested to see what you think!

  6. At first I really thought you were going to say this wasn’t much good on a re-read – I’m very glad to hear it was still awesome! I look forward to re-reading it one day. I also couldn’t put it down when I first read it last year, and I’m happy to hear the experience can be re-created. Also, “I studied Latin. FEAR ME.” is the best tag ever :P

    • I am a little mad at myself for not rereading it sooner! I wanted to a few times but then thought it wouldn’t stand up to my memory of it. Now I want to write my past self a note like you did for The Hours to tell myself to go ahead and read it sooner. I am seriously considering reading it all over again this weekend; but I’m sure that will pass once I get a few chapters into The Thirties.

  7. You could not have written a better review of this BOOK I LOVE. I *heart* it hard for all the reasons you mentioned. I will read it, but I’ve heard so many bad things about Tartt’s The Little Friend that I WILL NOT read it for fear it will sully our good relationship.

    • I want to love The Little Friend though! I feel like I should give it another try. Donna Tartt is from the Deep South like me, and I want to support her for that reason, and plus I just don’t see how she could write one book THIS GOOD and then write another one that was totally without merit. I’m still undecided.

  8. Wow! You have certainly piqued my interest! I haven’t read any Donna Tartt before, and everyone says she’s great.

    I know how you feel about wanting to finish your other books in a hurry because something you really want to read has to be put off. I need to read the Charity Girl by Georgette Heyer and A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway for obligations both personal and professional, but I would really like to return to Salem in a book, and I just can’t until I’m finished with these other two.

    • I did, I’m afraid, end up abandoning some of my reading responsibilities to read The Secret History. Also my writing and blog-reading responsibilities, which is why I’m now scrambling to finish up my posts for Diana Wynne Jones Week. It’s a good thing I have more self-control most of the time. :p

      I hope you do read this! It’s an amazing book (as I guess you’ve gathered from my raving review).

  9. Your reviews are so amazing, but your tags are even BETTER. I have this book on my shelf, but to be honest, every time I pick it up and read the back cover, I can only think of that Pacey guy from Dawson’s Creek in that movie The Skulls and then I have no desire to read it any more. Maybe there will be one of those book moments when I MUST read it, similar to your experience!

    • Thanks! :)

      I have never heard of that movie, but I have a strong suspicion that The Secret History is better. Maybe try picking it up and not reading the back cover? I did that recently with a Diana Wynne Jones book I had always hated, and it worked a treat. And The Secret History is really very very good (promise).

  10. Latin students are dark and edgy and dangerous! We study Caeser’s war strategies and the love… uhm… theories of Catullus. I’d hate to know what my Classics department was hiding!

    Great review and I MUST read this now. I want to see Classics students kick butt. Semper ubi sub ubi!

    • Oh my God, I cracked up when I saw that “sember ubi sub ubi”–I completely forgot about that whole thing. What a lot of currency that had in middle school Latin.

      They don’t kick butt exactly. They are edgy in the sense that they kind of lack appropriate moral instincts.

      (I miss Catullus. I love him.)

  11. Elegant is so totally the word for it. Also, hearing about Classics majors who are loose cannons kind of makes me want to go out and do something dark and edgy, then proclaim my Classicist status to the world.

    Second also: I now want to reread this even more than I did the other day. Which was a lot. It’s been almost a year, and that’s the amount of time I generally like to leave between rereads. It could work.

    • Do it. And when news of your crime hits the papers, I’ll be all, Yeah, I egged her on to do that. :p

      I am planning to reread it on my flight home. I do not usually reread things with such rapidity, but when I started packing it to mail home, I felt completely desolate. So, plane reading it is!

  12. Ooh, this makes me want to re-read this. I read it senior year of high school and loved it, and I’ve been thinking vaguely that it’d be worth a re-read but also worrying that I wouldn’t like it as much the second time around. But this makes me think I probably *would* still like it!

    • I always worry books won’t stand up to a reread, which happens often enough to keep me anxious. But in this case, I think the book has such literary merit and tense plotting and general wonderfulness that it can take it. :)

  13. As I was reading your review, all I kept thinking about was the Hitchcock film where two students kills another to prove the perfect crime, put him box, and serve dinner on top of it at a party. Not sure of the film, it might be Rope, but that’s where my mind went with this one. It sounds like I need to add it to my list.

    And, I liked We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Well, I was more creeped out and disturbed by it than liked it but still.

    • Hm. Are you possibly thinking of The Rocky Horror Picture Show? :P

      I loved WHALitC when I reread it last year. That’s what I mean–my reading tastes while I was abroad were completely unreliable. What was my problem? WHALitC is brilliant!

  14. >>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.

    LOL I didn’t love this quite as much as you, but I did adore all the classics bits! Classics students unite. :D

    (Perhaps I need to reread it, and then I’ll love it as much as you! We should totally start a Classicist challenge, BTW. It’s be the nerdiest, edgiest challenge EVER.)

    • Oh my gosh, we should absolutely start that challenge. I am feeling so geeky and nostalgic for my Latin days. There’s this dude in the coffee shop where I write in the morning who thinks I am interested in him, but actually I am just trying to figure out what he’s translating. I know it’s Virgil! But he keeps the titles of his books hidden. I WANT TO KNOW. (Eclogues? Aeneid?)

      • LOL at the coffee shop guy. You should ‘salve’ him to find out. :)

        I’m up for starting a Classicist Challenge if you are! I’m a very hands-off host, though, so pretty much setting up a blog w/ one Mr. Linky for reviews is the most involved I get.

  15. Very enthousiastic review. I guess I need to read this? :P

    I’m very bad with mysteries or anything like it, it all gets too scary for me far too soon.

    • I’m not great with mysteries either, and I’m terrible about scary books. This isn’t (and I recognize I’m about to say something I never believe when other people say it to me) that kind of scary. The only scary thing is that you don’t know whether they’re going to get caught, or whether one of them will accidentally let something slip.

  16. wow, we had such different feeling regarding reading and walking. Past Me thought that reading while walking impressively displayed her coordinational and observational skills. I am less ashamed of this now because I had a few collisions with things like mailboxes that stick out but don’t show on the ground, so I was appropriately smacked down at the time.

    • Well, I guess my thing was that I thought I was being like Belle. And that everyone was all, Oh look at that girl. How peculiar and interesting. :/

  17. This book is one of my all time favourites, thank you for such an excellent review. I have read it twice but might revisit it now! I’m not so keen on revisiting The Little Friend though, that was one of the biggest disappointments in my reading life. :(

    • :( It was pretty disappointing to me too. I remember I went running to the university library and braved the terrifying paternoster lift to get The Little Friend, and when I got it back to my dorm room and started reading, I was SO SO SO disappointed in it.

    • Hahahaha, yeah, like my book was just so enthralling that I couldn’t take a single second away from it. But that actually was the case with The Secret History.

      Ack, sorry! I missed so many reviews! I am fail.

    • General consensus seems to be that The Little Friend is a disappointment. I haven’t read it recently, but I didn’t care for it either, when I did read it. The Secret History is better. Promise.

  18. Every time I try and set some sort of reasonable boundary on my reading habits, the inevitable exception appears. :) So, you’re not alone. And this book sounds like it was worth breaking the rule for.

    • Oh, it was. Even though afterward I kept trying to justify it by reminding myself that the heart wants what it wants, and then hating myself for quoting Woody Allen. :p

  19. Yeah, I didn’t like this book OR Special Topics, so maybe you’re right about the family resemblance. I have a student who absolutely adores The Secret History, so maybe I’ll turn him on to Special Topics. Thanks for the tip!

    • I hope your student likes it. How come you didn’t? I’ve heard people say Special Topics is pretentious, which I guess is a charge that could be leveled at Secret History as well, though to me Tartt does a brilliant job of poking fun at their pretentiousness.

  20. I have loved this book too for years and years. I actually don’t see the resemblance at all between this one and Special Topics which I didn’t care for. If you like Secret History, then try The Magus by John Fowles, similar atmosphere and tone and also one of the great ones.

    • The Magus, you say? I definitely will! Thanks for the recommendation!!

      The similarities I see between this and Special Topics are fairly superficial really–school, exclusive group of students, narrated by an outsider, someone dies. :p

  21. Wonderful review, Jenny! I read ‘The Secret History’ a few years back and loved it! It is one of my favourite books. I hope to read it again sometime. I loved your comment “Watch out for us classics people. We are loose cannons and might push you off a cliff if you cross us.” :) I don’t know why Donna Tartt doesn’t write more – she has written just one book after ‘The Secret History’ – ‘The Little Friend’ and has been very quiet for years. I hope she doesn’t become a mysterious recluse like J.D.Salinger but write more and pleases readers :)

    • I’m wondering myself why she hasn’t written anything else. I wonder if it’s because Secret History was such a tough act to follow, and Little Friend seems to have been a disappointment to a lot of people, and now Tartt’s all disconsolate. That would be terrible!

      • Don’t know if I’ve ever commented here, so hi.

        I’m late to the party, but for what it’s worth, I loved The Little Friend, just as I loved The Secret History. They are both completely different in atmosphere though. I remember TSH as: New York, cold, group of students vs. TLF: the South, hot and humid, child.

        Also, TLF is more of a real mystery, which you don’t seem to care for. It starts off rather slow, but several scenes kept me on the edge of my seat. I know I’m in a very select minority though.

        Speaking of which, I too have read and loved The Charioteer! (Currently catching up on reading blog posts.) :-)

        • Hi! Thanks for stopping by!

          Yeah, I have wondered if the problem I had with The Little Friend was expecting it to be just like The Secret History. I’ll probably try it again sometime soon, and maybe I will like it better this time, when my expectations are very low. :p

          You liked The Charioteer? Really? Yaaaaaay! Isn’t it good? It’s so full of subtext and awesomeness! :D

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