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 their lives are changed profoundly and forever, and they discover how hard it can be to truly live and how easy it is to kill.
Finally, post-college, I was given my own copy by someone who'd been pressing me to read it for years. And I had a free evening and some popcorn, so I took the plunge. For three swooning hours I tore through the pages, finally closed it, took a deep breath, and thought, "This does not bode well for virtually all my current friendships."
This book is TERRIBLE. Not one character is sympathetic or realistic, not one line of dialogue would ever be uttered by a human being (and bear in mind I have experienced something like a thousand hours of conversation between pretentious overeducated drunk college students), and the Big Secret Horrifying Act is giggle-provoking even if you don't know any classics majors. If you do, then it's fall-on-the-floor hilarious; in that situation, my money would be on the farmer.
Avoid. If you must read about rich pretentious college students with issues, read Brideshead Revisited, which I find annoying but is at least well written. Follow that with The Bacchae and you're good: all Tartt's influences, none of her writing.
The Secret History isn't so much a whodunit as a whydunit - you know the who immediately, the why is somewhat more mysterious (and in many ways is never fully revealed). I love the sweeping romanticism of this book - set at fictional Hampden College in the eighties. I was in college at the same time and some of the characters are familiar - the punk rockers, the druggies, the incredibly annoying hippies. Our hero is a California transplant, at college on scholarship and thrust into a small group of privileged students studying the Classics with the enigmatic Julian Morrow.
This is a winter book - cold at its heart, colder in its setting. There are deaths and funerals and philosophizing - lots of masks constantly worn. At its center is the narrator, Richard, and his love of the picturesque and Henry, who may or may not be a psychopathic killer. In this reading I found Julian Morrow to be the most chilling character - he is the old man in the road with the answers you probably won't like once you get them.
If you haven't read this, it's worth reading. Donna Tartt is a good writer and a good storyteller (a worthwhile combination). It takes her forever to write a book (this one took 8 years). Her second book, The Little Friend, is an odd Southern gothic that I also enjoyed, although it doesn't have the staying power of the first. It was 10 years between the first and second novel. Her third novel is due out in 2012. I'll be interested to see how she gets past her sophomore slump.
Greek classicism is really just an intellectual prop for the students to appear aloof - this is not a novel of ideas per se. There is one or two references at the beginning about Greek ideas underpinning the bacchanal that kills the farmer, but, again, these are not essential to the story, just an exotic way to do a killing and accentuate the overinflated sense of superiority these students have.
I was waiting for the professor Julian Morrow to be fleshed out more, or at least to hear some of his profound utterances that made him such a figure of respect and awe for the students, but the reader is denied any real flashes of wisdom. Even Henry, a genius at translation, seems oddly ordinary in his speech.
Despite it's length, I can see why people re-read this, for the first time the plot pulls you forward. I imagine subsequent readings would allow the reader to pay attention more to the friendships, the moments where decisions are made, and the gestures that point to greater turmoil, for it is a novel of great attention to detail and luxuriates in creating atmosphere.
Other mediums have done similar tales with much greater tautness - Hitchcock's thrilling Rope springs to mind, while the charm and faint menace behind Henry's self assuredness reminded me of Patricia Highsmith's writing.
Despite my quibbles, I felt real pleasure reading this. Yes, they are dreary uni students who spend their days smoking, drinking and staring out from rain drizzled windows, but the world Donna Tartt creates is a richly textured one and I appreciated the ride on this different kind of thriller.
I recently read The Rabbit Back Literature Society, by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen. On the cover of the hardback edition is a blurb that says: "Mixes the small-town surrealism of Twin Peaks with the clandestine-society theme of Donna Tartt's The Secret History." --The List (UK)
Having enjoyed Rabbit Back, I found this tantalizing. I hadn't read The Secret History, but I'd read The Goldfinch and, despite some exasperation with its bloated size, I was willing to take another chance on its very capable author. So on my next visit to a real brick-and-mortar bookstore I purchased a copy in order to make a small but not negligible statement with my $16.00.
And here's my conclusion about that blurb: comparing Rabbit Back to this feat of fiction is sort of like saying "If you liked Disney's Aladdin, you'll love the Mahabharata." There's a difference of at least two orders of magnitude.
Which is not to fault Rabbit Back for being what it is, but only to say that these are not two things of a kind except in the merest manner.
In fact, as I (inevitably) allowed my mind to riffle through apt comparisons, the first phrase that occurred to me was "a high tale of love and of death." That's from the opening line of The Romance of Tristan and Iseult, in the classic 1913 translation by Hilaire Belloc of the twelfth-century legend. Even though the two works are superficially nothing alike, I find the latter to be a more apt parallel for Donna Tartt's first novel than the lightweight, whimsical, and ultimately unsatisfying Rabbit Back.
Both Tristan and Iseult and The Secret History are deep dramas of passion and error, of flawed humanity and its sometimes beautiful waywardness. Both possess a mythic quality of fatefulness and inevitability. Both deal in the big questions and in how people answer them with their deeds, their minds, their souls.
It would not do to take the comparison too far. The medieval tale has had a lasting effect on our Western culture and its literature that no contemporary novel is likely to have. It is short, 96 pages in my Dover edition, compared with 559 for the Tartt novel. And its principals are led by love and by a code of honor that has little in common with a misguided impulse to murder in the name of loyalty and self-preservation. Nonetheless, The Secret History strikes a resonant chord, perhaps because it too is a tragedy, and perhaps because there lurks behind it a sense of deities at play, amusing themselves with the sufferings of their mortal playthings, unhampered by any constraints that resemble human morality.
As in The Goldfinch, the author has a spellbinding way of depicting the inner life of her main character. I found myself asking the hard question: under those circumstances, how far might I have gone? How sure am I that I would not have done what they did, would never have fallen under the sway of a charismatic leader? What makes me think that I am any less flawed and weak than those who allowed themselves to commit that one evil deed?
The intoxicating and morally disfiguring experience of admission into an exclusive circle dominated by an aberrant personality: this is territory that has been explored many times. Other recent ventures into this terrain include Dismantled, The Bellwether Revivals, and The Likeness. None that I have seen is rendered more compellingly than The Secret History, a tale of love and death that is not unimaginably remote from where we live.
The setting for this tale is a small, secluded (and mythical) Vermont liberal arts college populated by elite students. The story is told from the point of view of a male transfer student who is running from his blue collar background and his disinterested parents. He escapes into a group of students who have further secluded themselves from the student body even more in this remote environment. Richard – the protagonist – begins to study classics, focusing on Greek and attempts to pretend he is someone he is not - privileged, wealthy, elite. The circle of friends he finds himself among, appear to all be very wealthy and focused on academics in a way that is very odd for modern college students. They are extremely insular, not willing to permit anyone into their ranks. Richard, now admitted after he demonstrates his knowledge of ancient Greek, begins crafting himself in the image of those around him. The opening scene (in fact the prologue) begins with a murder scene, there is no mystery here. The reader knows who dies and how. The murderers are clear, there is no question as to motive. The focus of the story are the events leading up to the murder and the murders aftermath on its participants. What Tartt unwraps for the reader is a very disturbing tale. Will a need to fit in trump morality? What needs to happen for a person to separate from a group focused on hurting those around them? Or will most people just follow the group, no matter the evil effects on those around them? What is the greater good – is it the survival of a group of friends? The story is about loss of innocence, the extreme focus inward to the neglect of else, and group think. It is a beautiful and haunting tale. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute spent reading this book.
Readers who enjoyed Tana French’s The Likeness, will enjoy this book.
I was pretty blown away at how much I enjoyed this. It took me almost an entire month to read (which is practically unheard of for me) but this is one that you definitely can't zoom right through in my opinion. Incredibly detailed and enthralling, I'm really glad that I paced myself and took my time because this is one to be savored.
Truly compelling, you already know from the very first line what's to come:
'The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.'
All of the characters were vibrant and completely unforgettable. Despite knowing exactly what's to come, the beauty of this story is the slow unraveling process that the author takes you through, detailing each and every step the friends took to get to that final moment. I can definitely see why this one is considered a modern classic.
A note on the audio: This is read by the author, a strange choice given that the narrator and most of the characters are all male. It took me a little while to figure that out.
The Secret History is a story told from the viewpoint of Richard, who as an adult is looking back on a particular year he spent at Hampden College in Vermont. While there, he falls in with a somewhat unique & eccentric group of students studying classic literature. From the outset of the novel, the reader is made aware that a death is forthcoming, and gradually the various layers of the story unfold. While not necessarily what you would classify as a murder mystery, the novel does share some characteristics of one, although more than anything, it seems a study in character development and exploration. The whole plot is somewhat disturbing, some portions are downright odd, and the characters' feelings and motivations are questionable. I was constantly going back and forth as to whether I liked Tartt's characters, including Richard the narrator. In the end, after finishing the novel, I felt not exactly dazed and confused, but certainly dazed and not quite sure what to make of it all. Overall, an enjoyable and though-provoking novel, but not necessarily flawless.
It is the story of five Classics students at an east coast American college, all five of them rather eccentric in their own ways, studying ancient Greek with a teacher they all but worship and thinking themselves rather better than anyone else. They experiment to create the atmosphere of an ancient Bacchanall or Dionysian frenzy and when successful, disaster strikes (I won't go into the plot anymore for anyone who hasn't read it and should and those who have already know).
When I first read this I was one of six Classics students at an East Anglian college, all of us rather eccentric in our own ways, studying ancient Greek with a teacher we all but worshipped and thought ourselves (naively and unpleasantly) rather better than anyone else (although quite what David Boyle was doing in that group is beyond me). We never went as far as to have a frenzy it has to be said, Dionysian or otherwise, but that's the reason it hit home first time round.
Each read has been completely different. It was years before I read it a second time, slightly wary that, once older and wiser it wouldn't mean as much to me, but it always has. It is partly the subject matter, and my own (many) years as a Classics scholar, but mostly the electrifying writing, the style of which I have never come across before or since (and certainly not in Tartt's good but not that good second novel The Little Friend) and the way you never know, even when you are sure you are aware of all the minutiae of the plot, where the story is going to take you, or where, this time round, your sympathies will lie.
And no matter how many times I read it I'm always surprised by the way it ends.
My only criticism (and in my mind this isn't a criticism anyway) is that a basic knowledge of Greek myth and philosophy, although not required, does help, especially in the first two chapters. But don't give up after two chapters thinking "Pah, this is all Greek to me". Keep going, you will never regret it!
I was struck by what a nice book the April 2004 Vintage Contemporaries paperback edition is - pleasant in the hand, flexible but robust, and well printed. So, on to the novel itself, whose narrator recalls those bright college days of drink and drugs and poverty during which an isolated group of classicists immersed themselves too deeply in their studies. We know from the outset that Bunny was murdered. We know that Henry and the narrator were two of the murderers, and that after the event the killers walked in single file through the Vermont woods, piled into their car, and started 'down the road like a family on vacation'. There are many comfortable and familiar elements in The Secret History: the New England college setting, the huge country house with family retainers, the impoverished outsider, the closed elite whose friendship he craves, privilege, power, intelligence, and beauty. Other works came to mind: 'Rope', 'The Glade Within The Grove', Brideshead, the narrator himself invokes Gatsby. There are many more, but ultimately this work stands by itself. Looking back over it I am amazed at how early in its 559 pages a major revelation is made, considering how much had happened before that point. Others will have posted proper literary critiques. I will just add that I was so reluctant to put the novel down that I was quarter of an hour late for my weekly appointment with Forbrydelsen III, allowed at least one supper to go cold, and my cough was kept substantially at bay for most of the time that I was reading. It is now nearly six hours since I finished The Secret History, it's getting late, and the cough is coming back. Off to load up with ice cream before scanning the pile of unread books. Or I might just start reading this one again.
One aspect of the book that should have made me cautious early on (though I was practicing an open-minded approach) was the author's dedication to Bret Easton Ellis, because long, lingering gazes at surfaces suffused the book, much as they do Ellis's work too. I understand (or think I do) the intention to portray a certain class of people and their fixation on style, manners, and position, but staring at surface and hearing flat, cool commentary from a parade of similar characters had the effect of deadening this oddly passive tale of murder and betrayal. Even after the 559 pages of the novel, the characters remained vague and difficult to know, though given what I learned about them, I didn't much want to know a single one of them.
The Secret History is a crime novel from the point of view of one of the criminals. That’s clear from the beginning, so this isn’t a spoiler. Richard Papen is an impulsive young man with a family that doesn’t want him around. He picks his college for arbitrary reasons and picks his major because overcoming the challenge of signing up for Greek is more important than thinking of his future. Right away we see his decisions are a little edgy, but we like and sympathize with him. I find Richard very believable in the context of the novel. I know some reviewers have felt Tartt’s male characters are not male enough. Perhaps Richard thought a little too much about what he and his friends were wearing, but other than that I had no trouble with his masculinity.
Henry Winter and Bunny Corcoran are the two most interesting characters in the book. In a way they flip roles over the course of the book. Although, there are other things going on that push them in unique directions. I can't say much more than that without revealing the plot. Camilla and Charles are interesting in a very broad way, yet I didn't feel I got to know them as well as the other students of Julian Morrow. And every college has its Judy Pooveys, who might be attracted to someone or interested in something that's going on, but always too stoned to care. The teacher, Julian, is also fascinating because he epitomizes the concept of a college environment as a sanctuary where ideas can grow and anything can be discussed, but he has been living this ideal for so long he's lost all concept of the way events stimulated by his ideas can affect him. As the story unfurls, his reactions are wonderful.
The main characters in The Secret History meet as students in a Greek class. This, however, is unlike any language class I ever took. It's more about thinking and philosophy than it is about communication or reading. Here's a quote about that subject. Richard Papen is reflecting on something Julian Morrow has taught him:
The value of Greek prose composition, he said, was not that it gave one any particular facility in the language that could not be gained as easily by other methods but that if done properly, off the top of one's head, it taught one to think in Greek. One's thought patterns become different, he said, when forced into the confines of a rigid and unfamiliar tongue. Certain common ideas become inexpressible; other, previously undreamt-of ones spring to life, finding miraculous new articulation.
It seems like a wonderful thing, to gain a new way of thinking, but it depends on what the new ideas are.
What I liked the most about the book was the slow way Donna Tartt built her plot, carefully giving her readers enough information about her characters to believe the plot was progressing. I read this book and I’m currently listening to the audio of Tartt’s latest novel, The Goldfinch. I waited to finish this one before starting The Goldfinch. They aren’t linked in any way, so the order doesn’t matter, but the style is similar. I’m glad I didn’t try to read them both at the same time. But they are both great reads.
Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions
The story is about a handful of enigmatic Classics majors who take their studies a bit too far... It is told first-person as a flashback by Richard, who is reluctantly allowed admittance to the group, and we are carried along as he learns of the deceits of the people he had come to think of as his friends.
Donna Tartt is a phenomenal storyteller. She creates plots that are deep, rich, and complex. Much like The Little Friend, The Secret History is a highly psychological book. I was absolutely gripped by this book from beginning to end.
Another thing which annoyed me was some very female observations coming from what is supposed to be a male narrator/protagonist. How many blokes know a "clutch" is a type of handbag?
These are all minor points to be sure and I'll certainly read more by this author when I have the chance. I think she has potential beyond what we see here.