The Secret History – Donna Tartt
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 they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last—inexorably—into evil.
“I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.” – The Secret History
Have you ever liked a book so much that you couldn’t form rational thoughts about it? Your mind just spins into this blank, incoherent, screaming void? That’s me with this book. I really like it, but I’m struggling to tell you why. Maybe I like it because the plot is outlandish and yet completely believable? Or because it gives the reader a glimpse into the lives of people who can use their privilege to get away with anything? Or maybe because the main characters are psychopaths? I don’t know. It’s just a really good novel.
The Secret History is about six college students. They’re all language prodigies who meet in an exclusive class where they are studying Ancient Greek. From the outside, the Greek students seem to have their lives together. They’re wealthy, intelligent, beautiful, arrogant, selfish, obsessed with appearances. They take most of their classes with a reclusive professor and keep to themselves. Basically, they’re the kids on campus who think they’re too good for the place.
“Beauty is rarely soft or consolatory. Quite the contrary. Genuine beauty is always quite alarming.” – The Secret History
The story is narrated by Richard, one of the six students. He starts the book by explaining that he and his classmates murdered their friend, Bunny Corcoran. What follows is a reverse murder mystery. The reader knows that the Greek students are guilty, but their motives are unclear.
Donna Tartt’s writing is brilliant. She uses so many specific details that it makes her stories come alive for me. I even felt (slightly) sorry for her sociopathic characters. Their lives aren’t as perfect as they seem from the outside.
I completely believe that these kids would be murderers. They’re used to getting whatever they want in life. If they suddenly decide they want to see Italy, they go to Italy. If they want the most expensive meal on a restaurant menu, they order it. If their friend threatens to put them in jail, they murder him and go on with life. These students aren’t accustomed to facing obstacles. They take what they want, when they want it. Their actions have never had consequences because they’re rich enough and intelligent enough to get themselves out of trouble.
After the murder, a few of the students are consumed by fear. They’re terrified to disobey their leader because he might murder them next. The tension in the story comes from watching the characters descend into paranoia. Their once-tight friendship falls apart quickly. They turn on each other. Which of the kids will snap first? Who is the most dangerous? What will happen when their beloved professor uncovers what they have done?
“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.” – The Secret History
My only complaint about the novel is its length. Like Tartt’s other adult books, this one is fairly massive (560 pages). I don’t think it needs to be that big. There’s a long stretch in the middle where the characters are doing drugs and feeling sorry for themselves. I got bored with it. The plot is slow throughout the entire book, but it feels especially slow in that section. Luckily, the action picks up again at the end.
You also might want to avoid this book if you don’t like reading about horrible people doing horrible things. The characters don’t have many redeeming qualities. They’re just horrible. Fascinating, but horrible.
“‘But how,’ said Charles, who was close to tears, ‘how can you possibly justify cold-blooded murder?’Henry lit a cigarette. ‘I prefer to think of it,’ he had said, ‘as redistribution of matter.’” – The Secret History
This is the second Donna Tartt book I’ve read. I like this one more than The Goldfinch, and I’m looking forward to reading The Little Friend. Tartt’s engaging writing style and realistically awful characters are enough to keep me coming back for more.
TL;DR: Too long, but worth reading.