Review: The Secret History

The Secret History by Donna Tartt, published July 1993 by Penguin Books.

The Secret HistoryRead: February 2016
Genre: Fiction/Mystery/Literary
Source: Purchased
#Pages: 629
Get It Now: Wordery

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Goodreads Synopsis: Truly deserving of the accolade Modern Classic, Donna Tartt’s cult bestseller The Secret History is a remarkable achievement – both compelling and elegant, dramatic and playful.

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 their lives are changed profoundly and for ever.

The Review

This was a super strange reading experience for me. I don’t often read literary fiction, and occasionally I felt myself struggling a little with this slow-burn, lazily-paced suspense novel. That being said, it kept me entertained and made for addictive reading. Even though it wasn’t an “oh my God, this is amazing” read, I still enjoyed coming back to it every evening, and felt compelled to finish it.

Tartt does something really unusual in that this book starts by telling you a character was killed. More than that, it tells you up-front which character was killed – you’d think that would kind of kill the suspense, right? Interestingly, the suspense is built through telling you the how, where, why, and who-dunnit parts of the murder.

The college setting reads like a character – the descriptions were rich and vivid, and made you feel as though you were there, that you’re one of the elite gang. Speaking of the elite gang, the atmosphere of this group smacks of The Great Gatsby (which in this case, is not a compliment) – there’s a sense of self-importance, entitlement, and grandeur, of self-indulgence and pretence. Basically, all of the negative nouns. While this worked to an extent in terms of characterisation, it also made for a ton of irritation, annoyance, and exasperation for the reader.

As you can imagine, the characters in this novel are hugely complex, and our narrator is highly unreliable – not only because the story-telling is subjective and from his point-of-view, but also because the novel is written as though he is reminiscing about his college years from a much later stage in his life. This complexity, mixed with the sub-plots towards the middle/end, made the novel drag in parts, and there were times were it almost lost me. Almost. I’m beginning to wonder if I made it through this novel simply because it was a more “accessible” piece of literary fiction, and part of me (shamefully) wanted to feel a sense of accomplishment. Overall, I’m glad I read this book, but my feelings about it are really on-the-fence. I’m left feeling incredibly neutral.

As this is Tartt’s debut, I’m interested in reading her more recent work to see how she’s developed as an author. Lucky for me, I already have the tome that is The Goldfinch waiting for me on my shelves… I clearly had a “literary” moment when I bought that one.

The Rating

3/5

Have you read The Secret History? What did you make of it? Let me know in the comments!

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7 comments

  1. I read and enjoyed it many years ago, but I’m not sure what I’d think of it now – I’ve been disappointed in both her other novels. I’ve never had the courage to re-read The Secret History in case it doesn’t live up to my memories of it – I suspect I may be a more critical reader now than I was then. I’m glad you enjoyed it overall, though, and hope you get on better with The Goldfinch than I did – it seems to have divided opinion with plenty of people loving it, so hopefully you’ll be one of them… 🙂

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    1. Oh no. I was hoping I’d have more luck with The Goldfinch, not less! I hate the fear of the reread – I recently reread The Time Traveller’s Wife, and luckily it was a positive experience. I haven’t been brave enough to reread One Day or We Need To Talk About Kevin yet though. I’m afraid I’ll have an existential crisis if one of my all time favourite books slips from the loving pedestal I’ve put it on! This was a super strange read for me, I didn’t love it, but I got on better with it than I expected to, so it exceeded my expectations, and as a result was a positive experience… not exactly a glowing review… 😀 Thanks for commenting! R xx

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  2. I’ve heard quite a few things about this book but have never read it myself and I have to say I am mightily intrigued. It seems like the kind of book I’d avoid, I’m not much for literary fiction because it’s pacing is completely off for me. There has to be a very compelling story for me to enjoy it and I often find literary fiction to be far too introspective. The fact that you felt compelled to keep reading each day does make me think there is hope for this book. Also, there has to be a reason so many people liked it, right? I may give it a try.

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    1. It is a really intriguing book. It’s not a new fave, and I can’t say I loved it, BUT there’s something about it that calls to me. It was quite intelligently done, even if it missed the mark of being a “wow” book for me. The pacing was pretty slow, but the mystery kept me coming back for more. Then again, because this is such a (snooty?) well-loved “modern classic” the fact I COULD read it and understand what was happening, meant it was more accessible than others I’ve tried, and maybe I enjoyed it on some level simply because it’s a more “intellectual” read, and I got it. And can now say I’ve read it lol. Does that make sense? I hate to give in to that trap – it’s like vanity reading, but in this case I think it played a small part. Borrow the eBook from your library maybe? I wouldn’t have picked this up normally, except it was in my local charity shop! R xx

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