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Donna Tartt – The Secret History

August 13, 2010

92. The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992)

Length: 503 pages
Genre: Literary Fiction / Psychological Thriller

Started: 30 July 2010
Finished: 07 August 2010

Where did it come from? Bookmooch.
Why do I have it? I can’t remember where/from whom I first heard about it, but as embarrassing as it is, what really made me want it was one of Jacob’s mentioning it in one of his recaps of True Blood on Television Without Pity.

How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 19 December 2009.

Think Classics geeks are
too bookish to commit a
murder? Think again.

Summary: When Richard Papen transferred to the tiny Hampden College in rural Vermont his junior year, he was expecting something different from his bland suburban Californian life, but he didn’t quite realize how different things would be. He falls in with a group of five other students, Greek scholars under the exclusive tutelage of a reclusive Classics professor. The five of them are worldly, wealthy, and disaffected towards everything except Ancient Greece – and possibly each other. But, although they guardedly let Richard into their group, they five of them are bound together by a terrible secret – one which Richard learns too late to prevent the murder of one of their number.

Review: I spent the first quarter of this book angry, the second quarter intrigued, the third anticipatory, and the fourth annoyed.

To explain: This book came with some very high expectations. Lots of people I know had loved it. It’s got high ratings and glowing reviews. It gets referenced over and over in varying contexts, including on varying “must-read modern fiction” lists. So as I started reading, I was expecting to love it. And, within a very few pages, I was very, very angry.

I wasn’t angry at The Secret History, however. I was angry at Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I read STiCP several years ago, and couldn’t stand it. (As a note, STiCP was the first review I posted on this site, and was actually part of the impetus for starting a blog – I needed more space to bloviate about how much it annoyed me, and was hoping to find some kindred spirits.) Unfortunately, the two novels are extremely similar in characters and in plot: small rural college, group of eccentric and pretentious students that gravitate around a mysterious professor, a newcomer narrator who is only eventually let into the inner echelon, the murder of one of their group, etc. So, I was mad at STiCP not only for blatantly ripping off The Secret History, but also for tainting by association a novel that I otherwise might have really enjoyed.

As I got past the first hundred pages or so, that feeling passed. The writing in The Secret History was a lot more readable and a lot less obnoxiously pretentious, plus the author had started dropping all sorts of hints about the dark secrets that led up to Bunny’s murder, and I was captivated, wanting to know more.

By the time we actually get around to the murder, however, I was a little bit confused – the dark secrets were there in the background, but were never really explored or used to full effect, and the actual murder was a lot more banal than I was expecting. Still, that was only halfway through the book. I’ve read plenty of books where the author introduces something new late in the game – a new twist, a new angle, something – that completely changes the course of the book and makes you want to start over and re-read the whole thing. As the characters begin slipping deeper and deeper into guilty paranoia, I kept waiting for that twist to happen. “People love this book,” I kept telling myself. “Sooner or later, that new element is going to be introduced that is going to bring the whole thing together and turn it on its head, and then you’re going to love it too.” I don’t mind a book that’s a slow read, as long as it’s eventually building to something, and I was willing to stick it out.

But unfortunately for me, that twist never came. The book just went on as it had been, with the characters having nothing to do other than get drunk, go slowly stir-crazy with paranoia, be pretentious, be pretentiously drunk, keep secrets from each other, and be hungover; and as such there wasn’t a whole lot to catch my interest. As a psychological sketch of people falling apart in the aftermath of such a crime, it’s masterfully done, and Tartt’s writing is wonderful at catching and evoking the claustrophobic atmosphere, but I just felt like there was never enough actually happening to properly call it a thriller. Plus, to make matters worse, by the end of the book, I was thoroughly repulsed by every single one of the characters, which may have been part of Tartt’s point, but which also made it hard for me to care whether or not they got away with it in the end. 3 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Eh. It’s well-written, and if slow, moody, psychological character pieces are your cup of tea, than I’d definitely give it a go. I was just expecting something very different from what it delivered, and 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.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Book Snob, Flight Into Fantasy, Jenny’s Books, Seriously Reading, Stella Matutina, Things Mean a Lot
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: 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.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 49: ““You want to know what Classics are?” said a drunk Dean of Admissions to me at a faculty party a couple of years ago. “I’ll tell you what Classics are. Wars and homos.” A sententious and vulgar statement, certainly, but like many such gnomic vulgarities, it also contains a tiny splinter of truth.” – characterized by or full of aphorisms, terse pithy sayings, or axioms, with the added implication of moralizing; of, pertaining to, or noting a writer of aphorisms, esp. any of certain Greek poets.
  • p. 180: ““We could play bezique, or euchre if you’d rather,” he said, the blue and gold dissolving from his hands in a blur.” – a game resembling pinochle, originally played with 64 cards and now more commonly with 128 cards and, sometimes, 192 or 256 cards.
  • p. 203: “Even in the happiest times he’d made fun of my California accent, my secondhand overcoat and my room barren of tasteful bibelots, but in such an ingenious way I couldn't possibly do anything but laugh.” – a small object of curiosity, beauty, or rarity.
  • p. 249: “This from the latest serial killer – destined for the chair, they say – who, with incarnadine axe, recently dispatched half a dozen registered nurses in Texas.” – blood-red; crimson.
  • p. 325: “At home in bed, in my private abyss of longing, the scenes I dreamed of always began like this: drowsy drunken hour, the two of us alone, scenarios in which invariably she would brush against me as if by chance, or lean conveniently close, cheek touching mine, to point out a passage in a book; opportunities which I would seize, gently but manfully, as exordium to more violent pleasures.” – the beginning of anything.
  • p. 343: “A freshman girl attempted suicide – for entirely unrelated reasons – by eating poison berries from a nandina bush outside the Music Building, but somehow this was all tied in with the general hysteria.” – a Chinese and Japanese evergreen shrub, Nandina domestica, of the barberry family, having pinnate leaves and bright red berries, cultivated as an ornamental.
  • p. 366: “There was a tiny dressing room off the master bedroom, and a black lacquer vanity with lots of little compartments and a tiny key, and inside one of the compartments was a ballotin of Godiva chocolates and a neat, well-tended collection of candy-colored pills.” – a deep decorative rectangular cardboard box with overhanging edges used for packaging chocolate candies

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25 Comments leave one →
  1. August 13, 2010 1:00 am

    I’m sorry you didn’t like it much, but I totally get where you’re coming from.

    • August 13, 2010 11:47 am

      Memory – My problem was that pretty much everything that I’d seen about this book had brought up the bacchanalia aspect of it, so I was expecting that to play a much bigger role than the two pages it took to describe it. I kept looking for the supernatural/mystic/mythic aspects to crop up again, and they never did, which sort of left me feeling like this was one dude-with-a-hook away from I Know What You Did Last Summer.

  2. August 13, 2010 4:36 am

    Thanks for linking to me – it’s lovely to find a new blog!

    I’m so sad for you that you didn’t love this! It really blew me away, but then I had no real idea of what it was about before I read it, so I didn’t have any expectations. Perhaps if I had, I would have been disappointed too.

    I’ve heard of Special Topics in Calamity Physics but I had no idea it’s a rip off of The Secret History – the pretty cover on the edition I saw doesn’t hint at menace within!

    • August 13, 2010 11:45 am

      booksnob – I’m sure that if I’d approached this blind, I’d have had a much easier time with it. I don’t know that I would have loved it, but at least I wouldn’t have been expecting something that it didn’t deliver.

  3. August 13, 2010 6:09 am

    Special Topics does resemble Secret History in superficial ways, but not to the extent that I felt the former was imitative of the latter. I’m sorry you didn’t like (either of them, but especially) The Secret History better! To me, the suspense of whether they would get caught was serious enough to keep me engaged all the way through.

    • August 13, 2010 11:51 am

      Jenny – I agree that the similarities between the two books were mostly superficial, and that the meat of the books was not really the same. Unfortunately, the main similarity – the exclusive clique of über-pretentious students – was the one thing that I disliked most about both books. By the time the end of The Secret History rolled around, I found every character so thoroughly unlikeable that I didn’t care whether they got caught or not, so long as they quit yammering about it.

  4. August 13, 2010 7:26 am

    The Secret History is on my list, and now I’m a little wary of the lack of action- it’s why I don’t tend to read mysteries. I think I’m better off for not reading Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy this.

    • August 13, 2010 12:20 pm

      Omni – I think calling this one a mystery is a misnomer, since there’s nothing all that mysterious about it. Calling it a thriller also implies more action than actually occurs. Psychological suspense, maybe?

  5. August 13, 2010 8:35 am

    That plot sounds so familiar to me. I think I may have read this one in my pre-blogging days.

    • August 13, 2010 12:22 pm

      bermudaonion – It has been around for a while, and I’m admittedly late to the party.

  6. August 14, 2010 2:59 am

    Your post reminds me so much of what I feel after reading Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. And I somehow compared the two books in my post on Tartt’s story but while I loathed The Magician, this one I truly adored because the characters, particularly, Henry kept messing with my head :)

    • August 18, 2010 10:56 am

      Lightheaded – I was also cranky with every single one of the characters by the end of The Magicians… I guess I just really don’t deal well with disaffected, pretentious college students.

  7. She permalink
    August 14, 2010 7:08 pm

    I’ve been wanting to read this for quite some time, but you’ve given me something to think about! I’ll have to come back and read your review again after I read it.

    • August 18, 2010 10:57 am

      She – Yes, for sure come back, and let me know how you liked it… I’m always interested to hear other people’s opinions, particularly if they differ from mine.

  8. August 14, 2010 7:17 pm

    This is my sister’s all-time favorite book. Personally, I loved it too. My book club is reading it next month, so we’ll see if they like it too!

    • August 18, 2010 10:58 am

      Stephanie – I actually might have liked it more if I’d read it in a book club context… at least then I would have other people with whom I could commiserate about how obnoxious the characters were being!

  9. August 14, 2010 11:46 pm

    Well I’ve never read Special Topics in Calamity Physics before but The Secret History sounds neat. Not sure if I would like the fact that the characters are repulsive or not though…

    • August 18, 2010 11:00 am

      Ladytink – They’re all kind of horrible people; I apparently don’t deal well with those sorts of characters, but other people don’t seem to have much of a problem with it.

  10. August 14, 2010 11:47 pm

    Well, huh. After reading your review and all the comments, I’m wondering why I have all three of the books mentioned — The Secret History, Special Topics in Calamity Physics and The Magician. Maybe I should just stop ordering books blindly, based on reviews, although I think I’ve had The Secret History sitting on my shelf for about 10 years. Can that be? Maybe 5 years. Anyway, I don’t think it was a book I got based on a blog review. Oh, well. I’ll just pass them on if they suck. :)

    • August 18, 2010 11:04 am

      Nancy – I read SToCP before I was able to put a book down without finishing it, or it never would have made it past the first 30 pages. I was reviewing The Magicians for another site, so I felt obligated to finish it, or else it would also have been a DNF. As for The Secret History, I probably should have put it down halfway through, but I was (erroneously) convinced it was going to get better and be different.

      I’d give all three of the books on your shelf a try, since they’re all pretty polarizing, and you might be one of the ones who loves them… but if you’re having a hard time with any of them, learn from my mistakes and move on to something more enjoyable. :)

  11. Maya Panika permalink
    October 16, 2011 12:22 pm

    TSH is one of my most favourite books and – despite myself (I really wanted to hate it) – I mostly enjoyed Calamity Physics too, but I do understand your pov, and plenty of people love books I absolutely loathed.

  12. A Reader permalink
    October 18, 2011 8:59 pm

    Couldn’t agree with you more. For years, I’ve wondered why this novel seems to leave people spellbound. I read it back when it originally came out, thinking that Tartt was going to be a major new talent. By the time I was done with the book, I was convinced it was nothing more than marketing and hype. Yes, all the characters are annoying, pretentious drunken brats. It’s next to impossible to care about any of them. Half the time, I had trouble telling some of them apart. Richard’s voice struck me throughout as sounding female, not male. The descriptions Tartt gave of California are laughable. I’ve lived in the state my whole life, and have no clue what she was describing. It’s as if she looked at some architecture book of Californian suburbs, and wrote that. Also, who in Vermont would live in a warehouse in winter? Oh, but the real topper is the stuffy, know-it-all attitude. The book just reeks of someone who thinks she’s so superior. Guess I’m missing something other people easily find. Thanks for letting me rant. It’s hard to find others out there who either don’t like the book, or are willing to admit they don’t like it. Thanks for the warning about “Calamity.” I’ll make sure to skip it.

  13. July 4, 2012 8:03 pm

    I realize you wrote this a long while back, but I just had to comment that I felt exactly the same way! I kept hoping we would get to hear more about the bacchanal or that there would be some twist in the end (like maybe they didn’t even kill that first man in the woods?), but nope. Just a lot of drunkenness and paranoia, as you said. It’s unfortunate because I went into this book expecting to love it like so many people seem to.


  1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt | A Good Stopping Point
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