The Secret History, Donna Tartt

[amazon_image id=”1400031702″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft”]The Secret History[/amazon_image]Critic A. O. Scott has called Donna Tartt’s novel [amazon_link id=”1400031702″ target=”_blank” ]The Secret History[/amazon_link] “a murder mystery in reverse.” In the first few pages of the novel, narrated by Richard Papen, a student in a small group of classics majors taught by charismatic and myterious Julian Morrow and which includes cold, enigmatic Henry Winter, twins Charles and Camilla Macaulay, foppish (he wears a pince-nez, I kid you not) Francis Abernathy, and Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran, the reader learns that the group has evidently conspired to murder Bunny and make it look like an accident. What the reader does not know is why. Richard slowly reveals the motive for the murder, as well as the ways in which it reverberates among the members of the group.

After recounting the murder, Richard tells the story more or less chronologically. At the beginning, he transfers to Hampden College in Vermont seemingly to get as far away from his parents in Plano, California, as he can. He becomes intrigued by the classics students, and having studied Greek previously, seeks entry into their exclusive courses. Julian initially denies Richard, and Richard becomes somewhat obsessed with the classics students. One day, he helps some of them with a Greek grammar question, and he is offered a place in their exclusive course of study. Initially, he is somewhat of an outsider in the group, who go on cliquish excursions to Francis’s house in the country and are oddly close-lipped around Richard. Over time, Richard is allowed into the group’s circle of friendship and he discovers a horrible secret about a wild night in the woods near Francis’s country house.

The Secret History is an intriguing thriller. Knowing from the outset that the group will murder one of their friends did nothing to diminish the mystery: quite the reverse, in fact. Initially, the group seem like such logical intellects and scholars that one can hardly imagine what will lead to Bunny’s murder, but as the book progresses, even events that seem outlandish on the surface are rendered in such a plausible way, that the reader hardly questions. (Of course a bunch of highly intelligent classics majors, seeking to get closer to the ancient Greeks they study, would stage a bacchanal. That’s perfectly logical!) Tartt offers an interesting character study into what prompts a murder and how it affects each member of the group differently. The Secret History is as much a character study as anything else, and I think the reader will be surprised by the ending (which did not go where I thought it would, for sure).

Tartt has a gift for description, choosing for her narrator a man who describes his own fatal flaw early in the novel:

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. (7)

And Richard describes everything he sees with this rapt beauty, from the run-down room with the hole in the roof in a house owned by an aging hippie where he spends his winter (and nearly dies of pneumonia) to Bunny’s descent into the ravine, windmilling and grasping for something, anything, to prevent his fall. Richard struggles to see things as they really are and renders events as he seems to wish they had occurred. He even admits this flaw near the end, as he tells the reader how he would have liked to have described an event—his description would have rendered it more romantic.

Jenny has a great review of this book (in fact, it was her review that put the book on my radar). She says,

[A]s a classics geek, I love it that this book makes Latin students seem super dangerous and dark and edgy. This is not necessarily the typical portrayal of Latin students, but it appeals to me: Watch out for us classics people. We are loose cannons and might push you off a cliff if you cross us. Or we might not. YOU JUST DO NOT KNOW.

Point taken, Jenny. I’m not sure I’ll be able to turn my back on a classics major ever again. Awesome read, Jenny. Thanks for for recommending it.

Rating: ★★★★★

This Sunday review shared as part of the Sunday Salon.

The Sunday Salon

Full disclosure: I obtained this book from PaperBackSwap.

17 thoughts on “The Secret History, Donna Tartt

  1. I love this book so much. (When I've recommended it to people, most have them have been surprised. "You love a murder? From one's college friends?!") It's the atmosphere Tartt creates which completely enraptures me. I can visualize the professor's room, replete with vases of flowers, pots of tea, and a jar of Mont Blanc pens. I almost wish I was with those students, so erudite, so able to study beyond the average academic college student of today. Read Greek? Read Latin? Compose whole essays in those languages? I've heard it said that Tartt's subject is academic arrogance, but that's not what was most important to me. It was the mood, it was the story, it was the whole book which she carried off with brilliance in my opinion. So glad you've read it; I've not written a review which satisfied me, so it was nice to visit you and read yours.

  2. This sounds like a really great read – I'll have to check it out. I'm reading The Twisted Thread by Charlotte Bacon which the publisher is comparing to Tartt's book … but I have a feeling that The Secret History is better written.

  3. It was a book that I read long, long ago, when it was first published, and it is a book I've never forgotten.

  4. Great review. In reading it, it made me realize that I barely remember anything about it other than the very very bare bones. Maybe I'll do a reread for next year's RIP Challenge.

  5. Yayyyyy, I'm delighted that you liked this so much! I love it, I've reread it a dozen times and it's never palled. You're right that Tartt does an amazing job of making the whole thing seem so reasonable and normal. That's one of the things I love about the book — like the scene where Henry's trying to decide how to administer poison mushrooms to Bunny? Perfect.

    1. You are so right about that scene. So calm, methodical, and collected! And Richard! Just going along. This book has a lot to say about the bystander.

  6. I LOVE this book! I'm so glad to see others have enjoyed it as well. You have a great description of it! For me, it was one of those books that after reading I have been searching for a book just as good and have not been able to find one.

  7. I read The Secret History several years ago, and was completely enthralled by it. As I recall, I had an oddly secretive, hoarding reaction to the book–I wanted to keep it all for myself and didn't talk it up with my bookish friends. Perhaps it's time to read it again, and maybe be a little more generous this time around…

    Thanks for the link over to Jenny's blog, too–she's wonderful. You're both in my feeds now!

Comments are closed.