The Secret History
Cover image and summary from Goodreads:
Richard Papen arrived at Hampden College in New England and was quickly seduced by an elite group of five students, all Greek scholars, all worldly, self-assured, and, at first glance, all highly unapproachable. As Richard is drawn into their inner circle, he learns a terrifying secret that binds them to one another…a secret about an incident in the woods in the dead of night where an ancient rite was brought to brutal life…and led to a gruesome death. And that was just the beginning….
The Secret History is a book that I’ve had my eye on for years and years. I’ve heard so many great things about it, and have had it on my TBR list for what seems like ages (probably at least a decade). I think I put off reading it for so long because I was intimidated by the book: by its size (my copy was over 500 pages), by that fact that nearly everyone I know who has read it has loved it, and by the worry that it would be over my head and I wouldn’t understand it.
I feel a great sense of accomplishment now that I’ve read it and can finally check it off my list! But my feelings on the book itself are mixed.
As I feared, much of what I read went over my head, as far as the books and poems that the characters study and discuss. I sent a lot of time looking up the people and works that were referenced throughout the story! That said, I don’t know that it would have made a difference to my enjoyment of the story itself, had I been familiar with all of that at the outset.
I read the first 200 pages of the book and was not super into it. Normally, I would not read that much of a book that I wasn’t feeling, but for some reason I was incredibly determined to finish The Secret History, despite feeling bored with the first part of the book. So I stuck with it, and it’s like a switch went off: after those first 200 or so pages, it felt like I flew through the book. I didn’t want to put it down.
One of the things that I was not prepared for, despite all I’d heard about this book, was that the characters were all kind of assholes, including our narrator and protagonist, Richard. To me, they all came across as quite arrogant, rude, annoying, pretentious, and incredibly isolated – not only from the rest of the college, but from the rest of the world (e.g. although the book was written in 1992 and took place around that time, one of the characters seemed not to have known about the moon landing). I was also concerned that they had alcohol and drug problems! I believe, though, that the characters’ isolation was purposeful, and it was well illustrated.
Over the course of the story, I did come to care about these characters (some more than others), and as the tension increased, I began to worry about them and how things would turn out in the end.
Part of what I enjoyed most was the way that Donna Tartt lulled me into a feeling of complacency – despite the very opening of the book, where we are nearly face to face with the awful act – and then suddenly had me feeling as tense and paranoid as the characters.
I was surprised that their professor, Julian, was not featured more prominently in the story. I had come to believe that, as he seemed to be such a central and beloved figure in each of the student’s lives, he would appear more in the story itself.
I don’t know if I can really say that this is a book that I enjoyed. I’m so mixed up about it! On the one hand, I felt that a lot of the references went over my head and the book took way too long to interest me. I also sort of hated most of the characters for much of the book. On the other hand, I liked the writing, I liked the way the plot unravelled and seeing the impact of ‘the event’, and the fact that I didn’t know what was going to happen but that I had to know.