The Secret History by Donna Tartt

1992. Vintage Books. Paperback. 559 pages.

Recommended by: a number of book bloggers, but it was Michael from a Books on the Nightstand podcast whose recommendation initially placed the book on my to-read list.

From: I own this one, bought from a used bookstore.

In a nutshell:

In the first line of the prologue, the protagonist Richard Papen says: “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.”  The book then goes back in time to Richard’s arrival at Hampden College in Vermont, where he seeks to gain entrance into a small elite cadre of classics students.  These students – Henry, Francis, Bunny, Camilla and Charles – are well-off, aloof and secretive.  After being accepted into their circle, Richard becomes witness and participant in the events that lead to the murder of Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran, and the subsequent fall-out.

Review:

I had high expectations for this book, based on the praise I had read.  As far as the writing is concerned, my expectations were certainly met.  In particular, Tartt deftly handles the atmosphere in the book.  While it can be certainly dark, suspenseful and psychological, as befits the plot, The Secret History also has passages of dreamy atmosphere and sharply observed social scenes.  The book is far more than a why-done-it;  I don’t begrudge any of its 559 pages.

Here is a passage from early in the book that I loved for its blend of understated humor and suspense:

Of course, I can see traces of what went on – to their credit, quite small traces – in retrospect; in the way they would sometimes disappear, very mysteriously, and hours later be vague about their whereabouts; in private jokes, asides in Greek or even Latin which I was well aware were meant to go over my head.  Naturally, I disliked this, but there seemed nothing alarming or unusual about it; though some of those casual remarks and private jokes assumed a horrific significance much later. Towards the end of that term, for instance, Bunny had a maddening habit of breaking out into choruses of “The Farmer in the Dell”; I found it merely annoying and could not understand the violent agitation to which it provoked the rest of them: not knowing then, as I do now, that it must have chilled them all to the bone.

p. 92

I think the high point in the novel for me was Bunny’s funeral, as much as that might sound odd.  The thoughts and memories that flood into Richard’s mind when he sees the open grave was when the raw horror of the murder came through the strongest for me.

To my surprise, I wasn’t very keen on the climactic confrontation scene of the book.  I liked some aspects of it, but I felt that I should be touched by the tragic story arc of one of the characters, and I wasn’t.  Richard certainly is shook by it, but I didn’t feel much impact as a reader.  Also, Richard’s pining for Camilla got a little old for me by the end.  But then, I don’t do well with love stories that involve placing a love interest on an unattainable pedestal.  Also, I didn’t care much for Camilla.  I was much more intrigued by a different character’s unrequited love/lust for Richard, especially as that character ended up being one of my favorites.

I was afraid that Tartt would fade out the Hampden College minor characters after Richard joined the elite classics class, and I was so pleased that she kept these more ‘ordinary’ characters around.  It made it so much more realistic that Richard would still occasionally hang out with and interact with the larger college community.

Jenny of Jenny’s Books has written that this is one of her favorite books to re-read.  I can definitely see why you would want to.  Knowledge of how the book winds up would lend a new light to the earlier events in the book.  If I re-read the book, I want to pay more attention to Richard’s references to his distant parents.  Richard says something late in the book regarding his father that suddenly added a new layer to Richard that I hadn’t quite grasped.  As the first-person narrator, Richard implies that his parents really have no bearing to this story, but I suspect now that his home life explains a lot more about him than he let on.

I’m glad that this book is part of my collection, so that when the urge strikes to re-read, it will be quite accessible.

Others’ reviews:

Books, Time, and Silence – “There are few more intense or claustrophobic works and the effect of this is to surround the reader, at once both inviting and threatening and the only way out is to keep reading, until the events have run their course and you can finally recommence your everyday life.”

Fyrefly’s Book Blog – “. . . while there were a number of interesting and promising elements, I felt like they were mostly ignored in favor of spending more time doing character studies of characters I didn’t care for.”

Jenny’s Books – “The adjective I would use for this book, and please appreciate that this is a high compliment from me, is elegant. Tartt has a trick of having her characters reveal things casually that shock the narrator and the reader, and at the same time seem perfectly plausible, indeed inevitable.”

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7 Comments

Filed under Book Review

7 responses to “The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  1. She

    Glad you liked this one! It was one of my favorites from last year.

  2. I really like how you quote other people’s reviews here! This is one of those books I bought because so many people I respect love it, but every time I pick it up, I just feel so skeptical on how it can possibly be that great and am just reminded of the movie The Skulls…

  3. teadevotee

    I really loved this, and it’s definitely one of my favourites to re-read as well. Though I always skip the bit where Richard spends the holidays alone in the snow….I never get that.

  4. What did Richard say about his father? Or can you not say without giving too much away?

    I wasn’t in love with the climactic scene (if you’re thinking of the scene I think you’re thinking of, at the hotel), but I thought Tartt paid it off brilliantly with the ending, which is so understated and fantastic.

  5. She – It really is a stand-out book. I’m not sure yet whether it will be a favorite. I’ll see how I feel at year’s end.

    Aarti – I love reading others’ reviews after writing my own. I can always find some choice quotes. Haven’t seen the Skulls, but I saw a couple of reviews that found close similarities between Tartt’s book and Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, which I haven’t read.

    teadevotee – the winter part is kind of odd in context with the rest of the book, though I didn’t mind it – at least not the first time through.

    Jenny – The hotel scene is the climactic scene I had in mind. The reference to Richard’s father that I’m thinking of is on p. 521 in my copy, in the passage right after the disastrous Greek class session with the chaplain. I felt like some crucial clue to Richard had slipped out, but I could be making too much of it.
    I have a question about something you hinted at in your re-reading post, which I’ll have to leave on your blog post – not tonight, but maybe tomorrow.

  6. This is one of my favorites; it might be time for a re-read! We read it for my book club and loved it. I thought it was so dark and intense, and kept me interested the whole time. I haven’t read her follow-up although I really want to.

  7. daphne – That must have been fun to read it for a book club. I would think the discussion would be lively. I am curious about her book The Little Friend.

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