Classics · Contemporary Literature

The Secret History

This book has been on my TBR list for years. I’ve never seen it receive anything other than high praise, and the reaction I have gotten in the past upon mentioning to those that have read it that I have not, in fact, done so is always along the lines of “Then go read it right now! You must! It’s life changing!” I’ve been hesitant to pick it up though because, and this may be an unpopular opinion, I read The Goldfinch a few years ago when it came out and I was not completely sold on its amazingness, despite most other reviews and opinions. And that’s not to say I didn’t recognize the talent and abilities of the author, or that I wasn’t impressed with what the book addressed…it’s just that it wasn’t for me. Here’s the review I wrote for that (which you should take with a grain of salt because it was before I started really writing for other people’s consumption and more was writing as closure and a “reminder” for myself later). So, I was unsure about starting this one, because if the style just wasn’t for me, than that would probably affect my feelings on this book as well. I hemmed and hawed for years about this, and put off reading. But then recently I had a great idea. I mean, I thought it was good at the time and it did, in fact turn out that way (success!). I decided to try this as an audiobook! Maybe the existential and philosophical slow-downs that I experienced with The Goldfinch could be overcome by having someone else read it to me. I didn’t even know this before I started, but Tartt actually narrates this one herself and she SLAYS. Seriously, I’m adding a whole star to this review just for her voice reading it to me. But I’m also getting a little ahead of myself. Let me do this right. Here’s my review…

The Secret History by Donna Tartt


“Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.”

First, a little synopsis. This is a weird one to write about. The central event is revealed so early in the book that I feel like it’s not really a spoiler to mention it here. Like literally, it’s in the opening line. But at the same time, no other blurb for this book mentions anything specific (to be fair, I only checked Amazon and Goodreads, but they are the big ones, so I stopped there), so I guess I won’t either. Suffice it to say that this book is about a group of 6 students at an elite college in Vermont. They are studying primarily under the tutelage of an enigmatic, and kind of mysterious, Classics professor…excessively (weirdly) isolated from the rest of the school by their insular studies and aloof, “cleverer than you” personalities. With such an intense educational focus on Greek society of the distant past, they find a “way of living,” in the footsteps of the ancients, that allows them a moment of complete escape from the reality of the present-day lives. But this moment ends with them having done something completely outside the boundaries of contemporary morality…and changes the course of their stories forever. As they work together (and separately) to cover it up and move past it, the question of how far things will go is one with an answer that will shock.

If I haven’t already mentioned it – I have a lot of feels about this book. And this is likely to be a long review. I hope you stick with me for it all. It fits with the book, which was a 22 hour listen…so quite an undertaking. But no hard feelings if you don’t! Anyways, I want to start by just saying how impressed I am with Tartt’s writing. This is, without a doubt, one of the most intellectual books I have ever read. And for it to be mixed into a book that, technically, could also be categorized as a thriller (as far as the “mystery” and psychological twists), is just really something. I don’t even really have a word for it. The fact that, despite knowing what is coming, the foreshadowing and build-up of tension around the why/how details were so gripping is extraordinary. Honestly, my favorite part of this entire book was how atmospheric and transporting it was. I literally felt like I was there, at Hampden college, seeing the falling leaves in the autumn, feeling the freezing winds in the winter, and slowing being absorbed into this special little group of budding intellectuals, too broody and self-absorbed and pretentious for their own good (OMG the ennui was out of control), but still so compelling and forceful. I found myself, alongside Richard (our narrator and newest member of the group), wanting to do nothing more than overlook their flaws and be welcomed into the “gang.” In fact, more than once after a long drive of getting pulled deep into the story, I would get out of the car and, thinking back on what I’d just listened to, be surprised at how reasonable I found the discussions/situations/reactions, under the circumstances. Because after leaving their world behind, I’d know how outrageous they were being. Yet, the next time I was in the car, the same thing would happen again. Basically, all this to say that Tartt’s way with words created a setting, cast of characters, and plot that, despite all my intentions, completely messed with my sense of equilibrium of right and wrong. And I have nothing but respect for her ability to do that.

The other thing that impressed me most with this novel was the way Tartt so deeply explored the way the group’s logical thought processes got them to the point where they committed the acts that they did. I mean, disregarding the decisions that led to the first “mistake” (and believe me, I know there’s a lot to unpack there as well), the development of the choices they make afterwards, the “there’s no going back now” road that they find themselves on, is incredibly cerebral. And it’s terrifying. The cold-blooded and emotion-less logic that informs and defends their decisions is frightening. And even though some of them struggle (mightily) emotionally with the situations, the ones that don’t struggle, and the willingness of the others to follow anyways, is chilling. Relatedly, I was fascinated by the extensive consideration paid to “post-” stress and mental states of our characters. There is just so much psychological insight. And the look at group dynamics is also phenomenal, both in terms of the “before,” when everyone is united, close and exclusive, and the “after,” when things start to splinter and suspicions and blame fester. Honestly, just exceptional.

I have a couple other thoughts that are a little less cohesive, but I want to record, for posterity if nothing else. First, when the heck did these kids go to class? I mean, it was a hefty focus at the beginning of the book, but towards the second half, when things really heat up, there is almost an entire semester of school during when they are dealing with crazy “extracurricular” issues, excessive drug/alcohol use, and sleep schedules that are in no way conducive to normally scheduled classes, among other things, and really rarely is it mentioned that their single professor is wondering what’s up and why their quality of work and attention is slipping. I know, it was a strange and insular educational situation, but still. Also, I really liked what the epilogue did, showing that, no matter how exclusive and special you are (or think you are) in college, real life hits everyone the same way. Each of the remaining characters, at the end, are struggling with the mundane-ity of real life. And none of them are handling it particularly well, or overly successfully. Except, perhaps, our narrator, Richard. But even still, the way that Tartt points out how not everyone can handle the long-lasting mental effects of their youthful “indiscretions,” nor can everyone adjust to not being special, is sobering. Last, oh my goodness, Henry! Why he did what he did at the end (no spoilers, promise!)…I just don’t know what to think. If you have thoughts, I would love to hear them. I’m still reeling and can’t totally figure it out in line with his other thoughts/actions. On the topic of Henry, I loved him as a character. And I think at the end, when Tartt compares him to Sherlock Holmes (the “real” one, with above average intelligence, a tendency to drugs, and a boredom with “normal” living) is the most spot on description that I could have thought of, on many levels.

I made a note in my phone, while reading, saying this was a “super slow burn and wildly intellectual thriller,” which, if you allow me to quote myself, really sums up my feelings on this book more succinctly than anything I’ve written so far. This book had the style of writing and story development that is not my favorite, but listening to it really helped overcome that barrier. Otherwise, considering that none of the characters was actually likable in any way (though those are always the most interesting to read about, when done well, as in this case), I could not help but like this book more than I expected to. And definitely more than The Goldfinch. Although I recommend this one with caveats, like making sure this style is something you are into, or at least currently in the mood for, I do, in fact, recommend it. And so to that end, thank you to everyone who pushed me to read it. Although perhaps not life-changing nor a new favorite of all time, it was absolutely worth the, not inconsiderable, time.

As I have mentioned, the writing is superb, if not altogether my favorite style. There were many times when a thought or description or passage was moving in some way. Here are a couple of the ones that stood out for me the most. But most of them must be read in the context of the story’s build to really appreciate, and thus I chose not to include here:

“It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. 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?”

“Some things are too terrible to grasp at once. Other things – naked, sputtering, indelible in their horror – are too terrible to really grasp ever 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.”

“Any action, in the fullness of time, sinks to nothingness.”

4 thoughts on “The Secret History

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