Book Review // The Secret History

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I only picked this book up because a large number of people (my bookstagram followers, my Goodreads friends, and a woman at the bookstore) recommended it to me. I didn’t think I would like it, and after I saw that Kirkus had called it “as deep … as a TV movie,” I was sure I’d wasted my time. I’m glad to say I was wrong.

The Secret History follows Richard Papen, a transfer student from California, over the course of his first year at Hampden College in Vermont. At Hampden, under the tutelage of eccentric Greek professor Julian Morrow, Richard befriends a strange and tightly-knit quintet of Classics students: Henry Winter, Charles and Camilla Macaulay, Francis Abernathy, and Bunny Corcoran. Before long the five others murder Bunny, but the question remains: whyThe Secret History, which focuses on Richard’s internal state before and after the murder, is a careful examination of what leads a relatively normal person to kill another, and what happens after.

+ Any review of this novel would be incomplete without mention of Tartt’s beautiful prose. Richard tells the novel in past tense, but despite this there are plenty of scenes that depict the beauty of Hampden, Vermont and the intricate relationship between Henry, Charles, Camilla, Francis, Bunny, and Richard. Also, this novel has possibly one of the most intriguing opening lines ever: “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.” Tartt conveys so much in so few words, despite this book being a long one: just from the first sentence you understand that the narrator and his friends have committed a murder, that they are surprisingly unaffected by the act itself, and that they only become worried about it when some external force points this out to them (namely a massive search for Bunny’s body).

+ The characters are amazingly awful, but somehow, you still want to root for them. I don’t know if I liked a single character in this book. There are always some characters I’d want to be friends with if they were real people, but I’d steer well away from just about everyone in The Secret History. One or another of them is antisemitic, racist, sexist, homophobic, or a murderer, and in many ways, Bunny Corcoran is the most bigoted of all. Tartt makes it quite easy to see Bunny as a bad person, but I think the real talent is where she still gets the reader to root for Richard and the rest of the murderers. Despite the fact that they’ve killed a person–a person who is depicted in the novel, as, despite all of his faults, a real human being–you’re still rooting for Richard, Henry, Camilla, Charles, and Francis to get away with what they’ve done, even as the FBI closes in and you see Bunny’s mourning family.

+ This novel is, at some parts, unnecessarily long. I love a good book–the longer, the better, especially if I like it–but some parts of this novel could probably be cut out altogether. The start is also very, very long and the plot itself takes a while to get going, although Tartt’s prose propels it along. It was a bit of a drag to get through the first hundred pages, though.

+ Someone on Goodreads called this a “modern Greek tragedy,” and that is the most accurate statement I’ve heard yet. If you’ve read and loved the Greek classics, I can basically guarantee you’ll love this one. Ultimately, this novel is about human nature, the impulse for self-preservation, and how very hard it is to apply ethics to the real world. The Secret History is an exploration of what happens when people try to reshape morality to fit themselves.

+ You probably won’t get as much out of this book if you haven’t read the classics. I was fortunate enough to pick this up right after finishing a college literature course about Greek ethics and the Western canon, so I was able to pick up on the references, unidentified quotes, and random scenes that are scattered throughout the novel. I don’t know if someone who hasn’t studied the classics will get as much out of the novel, which is unfortunate.

Tartt’s debut novel is an unparalleled examination of ethics and the human mind. Pick up The Secret History if you’re a fan of whydunits or Greek classics.
5tails

5 of 5 Wagging Tails

4 responses to “Book Review // The Secret History

  1. YES. That opening line…so good. And as someone who has never formally studied the classics, I’m sure I missed a lot of references, but I still loved it!

    • It really is! And I certainly don’t think reading the classics is necessary to love the book, but it was fun to pick up on all the lines and scenes that were referenced!

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