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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
The narrator, Richard Papen, recounts the events of his first year (sometime in the 80’s) at Hampden College, an exclusive liberal arts college in Vermont. (Reminiscent of Bennington College, attended by Tartt.) Richard comes from a lower-middle class family in California from whom he is alienated. He discovers a bent for language and literature, particularly Greek that he had studied in an earlier stint in a college in California. Richard is able to wrangle a scholarship to Hamden. Hampden’s students mainly are from families of considerable means. Richard’s background is far different from his peers’ social class and he makes up fanciful stories about his family’s wealth and social status to try and blend in with his college peers.
Richard encounters a group of intellectual students studying Greek with an eccentric professor, Julian Morrow, who takes on only five students to study Greek and the classics. Julian requires complete commitment to his courses; his students must drop all other courses to devote their studies to his teaching. Richard is fascinated with the image of this intellectual clique and persuades Morrow to take him in his coterie. His new friends are Henry from a very rich family in the Midwest; Francis who lives off a trust; Charles and Camilla, twins from Virginia who have a very close sibling relationship; and Bunny, from a Connecticut family that has pretenses about being of the eastern elite but who are a notch or two below in wealth and status. Bunny’s traits are different than the others; his is garrulous to the point of annoyance, he is not committed to intellectual effort and boldly mooches of the others to satisfy his whims and life style needs.
[Spoilers from here on]
Under Julian’s brilliant exegesis, the clique becomes enraptured with the themes of the Greek classics: beauty, tragedy, love, death and, particularly, the idea of freeing one’s spirit through loosing control of the normal self to attain a higher state of being. They get pedantic and abstract understanding and encouragement in this from Julian, but want to move beyond his abstract notions to real attempts to achieve an altered state. They begin (without Richard and Bunny) to engage in Bacchanalian-like rituals to alter their consciousness (with the aid of a lot of alcohol) where they hope to transcend to a loftier plane of existence. While carrying out ritualistic behaviors in the woods near Francis’s family’s summer place, they somehow encounter a local farmer who, in ways that are never made entirely clear, they kill, probably inadvertently. While they are devastated by their action they have no intention of taking responsibility and seek to avoid connection with the homicide. In their emotional distress in the immediate hours following the event, they reveal the murder to Bunny and he, in turn, tells Richard. Bunny begins to use his knowledge of the killing to manipulate his friends into giving him money and gifts, including a semester break trip to Italy with Henry, where Bunny’s demanding, greedy behavior is out of control. He is a blowhard and makes frequent comments hinting at the group’s actions. His behavior becomes increasingly worrisome to the others and they conspire in a plan to kill him, making it look like an accidental fall. This they do and again it seems like their deed will not be connected to them. Unlike the first murder, Richard participates in Bunny’s murder.
Bunny’s disappearance results in an investigation and search, involving local and state police, the FBI and major media attention. The friends are questioned but no one reveals anything that could link them to Bunny’s death. It appears they are going to escape the palpable justice consequences of their actions, but the psychological consequences of their actions begin to manifest. Although their secret is kept from everyone, each begins to show growingly powerful internal reactions that drive them to dissolution and self-destructive behaviors. Charles becomes an alcoholic. Francis experiences anxiety attacks and becomes worried that Henry is plotting to kill him. Camilla becomes alienated from her brother and takes Henry as a lover. Richard is increasingly drawn to drugs as a means to escape the guilt of his involvement in Bunny’s death. Henry appears to have the most self-control and dominance over the friends, but by the novel’s end we find out that he, too, reaps the whirlwind of his wrong doing.
Writing years later, Richard reveals that none of his friends have survived their guilt. He is able to ultimately graduate, but one understands that he will never prosper.
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.
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.
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.