Review: ‘The Secret History’


The Secret History
By Donna Tartt

  • Date Finished: Aug. 7, 2014
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Year: 1992
  • Project: n/a
  • Reading List: Summer 2014, 65 Books You Need to Read in Your 20’s
  • Grade: A-
  • Thoughts upon reading:

Gosh, is it already Aug. 17? So, I finished this book 10 days ago, but since then, we’ve been on vacation, we swam a lot, tasted a lot of wines, I finished two books in the meanwhile…you know how it goes. We returned from Up North yesterday (northern Michigan, that is, for you non-Michiganders), and even though it’s been a day, I still feel hazy about this whole “real life” thing, and everything before last Saturday seems like a month ago. I guess that’s a sign of a good vacation, right?

But OK, let’s see what I can say about The Secret History, because this was one of the “big books” I wanted to read this summer, especially after so enjoying The Goldfinch last year, and then hearing about 10,000 rave reviews for The Secret History.

First of all, I thought that The Secret History was very, very different than The Goldfinch, and yet at the same time, very, very similar. The Secret History tells the story of a strange group of Classics students at an elite private college in Vermont, narrated by the newest member of their weird class, Richard, a transfer student with no sense of self who longs to be defined by something. Essentially, Richard is every young person when they go away to college – once you’re away from your parents and high school friends, you realize that your identity has been stripped clean, and you are a nobody who can become whoever you want. The possibilities are endless, exciting, and terrifying.

Richard is ready and willing to be anyone other than a nobody, and jumps headfirst into a friendship with this strange class – geniuses who have devoted their entire college careers to learning Greek and the Classics, in the process isolating themselves from the rest of campus, their peers, and along the way, their sense of reality. Something terrible happens, and the entire world is turned askew, and as readers, we’re taken along for the wild, sickening ride.

I say that this book is very different than The Goldfinch because the subject matter is so much more confined, and the time span much more limited in The Secret HistoryThe Secret History feels much less grandiose than The Goldfinch, though that certainly doesn’t detract from its merits or my enjoyment of it.

At the same time, I recognized the same turn toward the grotesque in The Secret History, the same overwhelming sense of unease. Donna Tartt’s novels (at least in my experience), present a picture of humanity that is very real, but also very gritty and slightly dirty. There’s always the threat of violence and evil lurking beneath the surface, and in some ways, this makes for a slightly terrifying reading experience. I feel that The Secret History was even more powerful than The Goldfinch in a lot of ways because its protagonist could be anyone. Anyone can be taken in by the glamour of the popular kids on campus, anyone can enter a frienship with the best of intentions, and anyone can suddenly find themselves way over their head.

Like The Goldfinch, this book was expertly written and was, in the end, very, very, very, VERY good. I feel enriched, enlightened, and a better person for finally having read this book. However, I did give this book an A-, and it’s for much the same reason that I gave the same grade to Stephen King’s Pet Sematary: the reading experience was just a bit too uncomfortable at times. There was so much tension in this book, it gave me headaches. This is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. The fact that a story can have a physical affect on me speaks to its power and quality. However, when I think back on The Secret History, now that it’s been 10 days, all I remember are those tension-fraught headaches and a disquieting sense of unease about something. Not the best of feelings, but a strong feeling. And at the end of the day, sparking a strong feeling in anyone is the best an author can hope for.


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