If I had a penny for every time I was recommended The Secret History, I would… well, I wouldn’t be rich but I could get myself a new hardcover book, which means I get recommended this book a lot. On top of that, a lot of people who I trust completely when it comes to books love this one, and they have pretty different tastes, so I think this book had all the necessary predispositions for me to love it. Plus, there’s a certain aesthetic tied into this novel that I find very intriguing and mesmerizing, so I was already primed to enjoy this one, just by buying into the feel of the book. And I really did enjoy it. Moreover, this is one of those rare reads this year that I am super excited to discuss and review, which already says a lot about my feelings for it.
This novel follows a group of students at an elite college in Vermont, who all enroll into this eccentric professor’s classics class and it’s about their progressive fall into betrayal and obsession.
It’s undeniable that Donna Tartt is a fantastic writer. I was really impressed with her way of storytelling from the first page, and I think the writing remains consistently good throughout. Her style evokes this haziness and fluidity that really sets the tone and the atmosphere of this novel. I feel like as the seasons change throughout the school year, so does her writing – it’s bleak and stark in the winter and then it slowly moves to the haziness and warmth of the warmer months.
“Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally believed to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petrie dish of melodrama and distortion.”
I think that the writing also reflects the progression of the plot really well, as we follow these five people who get more involved with each other and also in the secret that they share and are trying to keep. On top of that, I feel like every single sentence Tartt puts into here has its purpose and nothing feels excessive. I think her prose is immaculate and I really appreciated it.
I really loved the characters in this book, despite not being able to relate to them. Everyone in here is completely awful and unlikable, but they are all really compelling, which I think is another testament to how good Donna Tartt is – everyone is awful, and yet you kind of love them all.
Richard, our narrator, is the most ambiguous character of them all, and he is the one that lacks a true personality in a way – but it’s entirely on purpose. Richard has this desperate need to fit in, and he sort fashions this persona to detach himself from his past and his background, so you’re never really sure where that made up person ends and his true self begins. On top of that, he is sort of a character that is on the outside looking in, and he never truly feels like an organic part of the group, but more like a bystander that you can’t quite trust. I really loved how unreliable he seemed as a narrator and I really enjoyed that.
Henry is also a really interesting figure, sort of the driving force behind the madness the whole group slips into. The brain of the operation, he is a really intriguing character that you’re not sure if he is evil or just plainly not used to the ways of regular humans. I also really loved Frances, he was probably my favorite character.
And of course, Bunny was awful, and the author manages to make you feel completely detached from his death, much like everyone in the novel feels. I felt like a bad person for not feeling sorry for him, but at the same time, the author totally managed to convince me that his death was inevitable.
The great thing about this novel is how it handles its character dynamics and relationships. It’s very multilayered and there are always new things cropping up, new information that Richard finds out that gives us a new perspective and a new outlook on the way these characters interact and how they feel about each other. It’s like peeling an onion, and it’s handled really well. These tidbits of information were carefully layed out and I really enjoyed how these interactions unraveled and distorted throughout the novel. I was never really sure if these people were friends or if they actually liked each other, or if they were only together because they could not function with regular people. It’s a really interesting dynamic to read on page.
The one thing that stands out about this novel is the complete and utter lack of emotion from these characters. They are completely depraved not only of guilt or remorse, but they feel oddly disengaged from everything they are feeling. They drink a lot and there are glimpses of feelings from all of them at certain points, but they seem to quickly get over it. There’s this weird detachment from emotion in the novel, and you as a reader become also detached, which is a weird experience. I never felt sorry for Bunny and I was completely unperturbed by the awful things these people did, because they themselves were too. Moreover, every bad thing they did made complete sense to me, even though it was mad and evil. But the author manages to convince you that this is all normal. And then the glimpses of remorse really hit you hard, because you get reminded that this is murder, twice.
“But while I have never considered myself a very good person, neither can I bring myself to believe I am a spectacularly bad one.”
I also loved all the extra bits in this. The Vermont setting, the allusions to classical work, the academic setting… I really loved all the extra stuff in the book. Moreover, this reminded me of a more philosophical and less psychological Dostoyevsky, except without any sort of emotional and psychological turmoil. Crime and Punishment is even referenced at one point in time, which was amazing and I loved it. This has that sort of vibe of Russian realistic literature, but with a Western twist and I really loved that, as a huge Dostoyevsky fan.
I gave this book a 4 star rating. I really enjoyed it, but it did not fully grip me. I started this in January, and only got around to finishing it now. It was a slow start for me, and I think the ending also did not fully wow me by any means. I also feel like this wasn’t psychological and introspective enough for me to fully adore it. And I just wasn’t as obsessed with this that people seem to be. Which is fine, I still really enjoyed the book. It just wasn’t a 5 star read.
I think this is a fantastic novel, that really made me think and really made me engage with the text itself. I think it deserves all the praise it gets and I would highly recommend you check it out. It’s one of the best books I read this year, for sure.
I would love to hear from you – have you read this one? What were your thoughts on it? Do you plan to pick it up? Have you read any other Donna Tartt? Let me know about all of that in the comments!
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