Review: The Secret History

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Providence smiled upon me with The Secret History; I found a first edition in a local thrift store. Normally, this doesn’t matter to me unless it involves my beloved Tolkien, but the people over at Alfred A. Knopf believed in Tartt’s debut so much so that they printed the first edition in a run of 75,000—compared to the 10,000 usually reserved for debuts. It’s also pretty fancy, with a plastic cover that slips over a lovely hardcover. Jenny absolutely adores this book, and I thought it was high time to ignore my library books and get to my own tiny pile of unread books. (I do, in fact, have one! It is in my closet.)

The Secret History is the story of six classics students at Hampden, a small and exclusive college in Vermont. Richard Papen, our narrator, is a working-class suburbanite from Plano, California, whose talent for Greek has led him to apply to Hampden. Once there, Richard attempts to continue his study of Greek, only to discover that the classics professor Julian Morrow limits his class to five students—the twins Charles and Camilla, logical Henry, elegant Francis, and laddish Bunny. Richard falls in with the group and begins studying Greek, kicking off an idyllic year. But when Charles, Camilla, Henry, and Francis admit to a horrible crime, Richard feels protective of them—protective enough to aid them in murdering Bunny to cover it up.

While I liked The Secret History at first, I can’t say I absolutely loved it. I liked the general thrust of the story—working-class Richard becomes obsessed with his privileged and brilliant classmates even as he has to lie to keep up with them—but it wasn’t gripping. I did, however, love the portion of the novel where Richard, unwilling to go back to California or sponge off his friends for the holidays, takes shelter in a warehouse where he almost freezes to death. I appear to be a sucker for things involving almost freezing to death, if this is part of the same pattern perpetuated by The Left Hand of Darkness and Graceling. But once they actually kill Bunny, I couldn’t put the book down. As Jenny says in her review, there is no tension like “trying to cover up a murder” tension. I spent an evening doing laundry and just finishing the book, sprawling wherever I could. (Sprawled reading is really the best kind of reading.) I’m so glad I read it during the summer, otherwise I would have been tempted to avoid work to read it. It’s that gripping.

These are not good people. Bunny, of course, is a particularly expensive kind of annoying—you almost want him to die, but not quite—while everyone else has their own issues; even Francis, who comes off as the best person in the group at times, is still overprivileged and incapable of understanding Richard’s situation. Not that Richard wants anyone to understand, mind you; he lies about his upbringing and who he is to fit in. Even Julian, who initially comes off as a kindly and eccentric professor, turns out to be spineless and unable to live up to the ideals he’s been essentially indoctrinating his students with, closing them off from the outside world. But while this does make the beginning a bit slow, it also makes the second half that much better—you almost want them to be caught, which makes the tension sweeter. These are also people who seem fundamentally opposed to change; immersed in the language and rhythm of Ancient Greek, they spend most of their time trying to recapture their idyllic year before they decided that Bunny had to be killed. But, of course, it can never be recaptured, and you almost feel for these murderers as their lives fall apart around them.

It’s that ambiguity that makes this such an interesting book. These are not good people, yet you sympathize with them; they do the worst things for okay reasons. While the characterization can be a bit haphazard—I had some difficulty keeping Francis, Henry, and Charles straight in my head for a bit—it almost works, as we’re seeing everything through Richard’s eyes. There is some silliness towards the end of the book, when Julian, who up to this point had been mentioned as crossing paths with historical figures, has some connections to wholly fictional countries, but it’s thankfully brief. Tartt’s prose is elegant but remarkably dark; only the idyllic year is rendered warmly. Richard’s home life is depressing and the way the group splinters apart is beautifully but coldly rendered. While it has dated somewhat, it’s still a unique novel about murder, privilege, and isolation.

Bottom line: Despite a slow first half, The Secret History, once the students have committed their murder and become devoted to covering it up, is a gripping, tense, elegant, and dark piece of work. While it’s dated somewhat and there’s some silliness with fictional countries towards the end, it’s still a unique piece about murder, privilege, and isolation.

I bought this book from a thrift store.

5 thoughts on “Review: The Secret History

  1. This is a beautiful, dark, gripping debut. Something else you might want to read is The Likeness by Tana French. There’s a lot of similarities (cloistered clique immersed in specialized subjects, murder), but it’s more completely a mystery (sort of)and dare I say it, I think I may like the characters better.

  2. Oo, you know, I always forget (on purpose) about all that weird, silly business with the fictional foreign country. That is utterly silly; however, I do love it that after Julian leaves, and the other climactic events occur, the classics program becomes suddenly pointless. I thought that was great — all the stuff they did was for nothing at all. They kind of needed Henry and Julian for the narrative to work. Oh God I love this book. :p

  3. Pingback: The Sunday Salon: 2011 in Review « The Literary Omnivore

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