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.
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 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.
There's also some murder.
And one of the characters has a pince nez that he peers through. He doesn't even need glasses! He just wears a pince nez because he's that pretentious.
That's what the book felt like - pretentious but useless. There are a lot of classy allusions, the kids speak Greek to each other; the novel can be read as a tale of the Nietzschean struggle between action and stagnation, the strong and the weak. There are multiple epigraphs that suggest as much.
At its heart, though, it's basically a beach read. Written in the first person from some point in the future, it reads like gossip. It's dishy. There are crazed bacchanalian rituals. There's a lot of Scotch. There are rich people getting away with murder(s).
Anyway, I did like this book. It didn't really work as Literature, but it was enjoyable - it just would've been more enjoyable if it'd lost about 100 pages and occasionally swayed more toward the denim than the wool trousers.
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 approach of telling the reader about the murder and who committed such a horrendous act right from the start and its subsequent fall out was a unique angle that was a nice switch from the typical suspense novel. The pretentious nature of this book and its characters is hard to overlook. I found it amazing that a character driven novel could have so many despicable characters and still be enjoyable. I find it hard to imagine a bigger collection of snobs and shallow people. Hampden college certainly plays into ever stereotype of a rich, private Liberals arts college imaginable. I think this hurt the book in the end, but allowed the despicable traits to flourish in such an environment. In any other setting this novel wouldn’t work. In the end snobbish intellectuals with no redeeming value, in a college where nothing but money and position matter, something like a petty murder or two and its subsequent cover up fits.
Now the hiccups, one the more persistent problems for me was establishing a consistent time period. Cultural events seemed to place it in the early 90’s or late 80’s. But the students dress and actions, like listening to music that their parents listened to, the lack of television, or recreation doesn’t seem to fit college students in the early 90’s. Then there’s the rampant drug and alcohol use, being so intoxicated on such a regular basis makes it hard to believe that any coherent plan to cover up or plan a murder is even possible. I also found the homosexual and incestral undertones a bit hard to accept. Maybe its apart of the whole ancient Greek emersion and fit the tragic Greek comedy theme, but still I found it to be a little to overt and over the top. The last annoyance was the frequent injection of foreign languages instead of English. Most of the time it was pretty easy to get at what she was trying to say but at times she was inconsistent and at times left me scratching my head at key points in the story.
I know this review isn’t exactly glowing, it really was a good read. I really don’t know what to say or feel about this book.
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.