Book Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Title: The Secret History
Author: Donna Tartt
Published: 1992
Genre: Adult Literary Fiction – Thriller

Synopsis: 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.

My Rating: red-starred-starred-starred-star

Let us begin by quickly letting you know what sort of book this is. This is the sort of book where none of the characters are likable, they are inherently selfish, spoiled, rich people whose moral compass seldom points north. There are many parts of this book, around 250 pages, that could have been cut out but Tartt strikes me as the type of writer that does not give a fuck if you have to waddle through pages and pages of rich selfish young people getting drunk and justifying their actions.

Our story takes place in a fictional Vermont Ivy-League college, Hampden. Our narrator, Richard, is a middle class kid from California who studies classics and notices an eccentric group of 5 students who always hang out together. Here begins his fascination with them, from the very beginning he wants to be one of them and thus begins his slow process of becoming one of them. The six study under the tutelage of Julian, an old eccentric classics teacher and him alone, this creates a sort of isolation and vacuum in their lives as the only people they really hang out with is each other.

This is a slow story-telling process, there is tension and there is brutality, moral ambiguity and much more. The book begins the first sentence letting you know that they’ve killed someone, all of them and that someone is part of their group. So then we go back to the beginning to explain how it happened and what led to the murder.

The most fascinating of the characters is Henry, I don’t want to say much about him because he’s essentially the main character but you don’t realize it until halfway thru. He is an incredibly crafted character, Tartt gives us a fact about him and keeps five facts to herself so that you’re constantly trying to guess what he’s thinking, doing and where he truly stands. He is the center that all of their lives revolve around and it was majestically done.

I think you have to go into this book prepared for Tartt’s writing style. The debauchery in this book is harsh and unapologetic. The way it wrapped up and that final realization of the utter unhappiness in these people was very poignant. I think, later on, when I think on it or perhaps when I reread it, I will love it more. This is definitely one of those book that will stick with me for years to come.

A word of advice: DO NOT DO THIS BOOK ON AUDIO! This was one of the worst audio books I’ve ever come across, Tartt herself narrates her book and it is incredibly distracting because one, she’s a woman and Richard is a man. I was so confused when it started and it never got better so I switched to the physical book. Two, Tartt has a distinct Southern accent and these people are all from New England with their posh accents and such. Needless to say, that is one audiobook that really needs to be redone and hire Steve Blum or someone who can really nail this book and do justice to it!


8 thoughts on “Book Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  1. Great post and book review. This was the first (and so far only) Donna Tartt book I’ve read. I will give others a chance, but they are so draining, it’s not something to do frequently. I totally agree with you.

    Definitely too long, but probably helps create the tension and drama needed in the story. I’m not sure that I learned a whole lot from it, as you noted… none of the characters are likable. It was more… “don’t be like this. it makes you a bad person.”

    Glad to see your review on this one – not too different from mine!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is incredibly draining, the seven days I spent reading this I felt drunk and high just a hole of a deep debilitating sadness. There were moments in this book that I was like RICHARD RUN AWAY, GO AWAY, SAVE YOURSELF but he stayed and at the end I got that sense of A Separate Peace/Fight Club from him and Henry. Were they really mirrors of one another? Were they the same person? It’s a book I will continue thinking about over and over.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes! This is the kind of book where you just need to sit with the author and understand what went through his/her mind. Why did this character do this? What was this person thinking? They all needed severe kicks in the ass to stop being so weird. Forget about the whole murder part… but it did make for good drama!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review!! This is one of my favorite books – one of those favorites where I have a hundred complaints about it but at the same time I just love it so much that I’m willing to forgive a lot – and Henry Winter is honestly one of the most memorable characters I’ve ever encountered. I couldn’t imagine trying to listen to this book on audio though. I didn’t realize that Donna Tartt narrated it herself, but that’s such a good point about her accent and gender pulling you out of the story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes it is one of those that will definitely stick with me I like to pair up audiobook so that I can get some reading time while driving it helps with staying in focus of the story especially on the days that I do not have time to sit down and read

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved this book when I read it years ago, and I’ve been thinking about re-reading it, but am afraid to. Would I like it as much as I did when I was in my 20’s? I think it’s worth the gamble.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ok, let me get this out of the way before I comment about The Secret History itself… I LOVE YOUR WRITING STYLE! The upbeat and lightheartedness of your blog language carries through so much throughout all (I’ve read several up to this point :)) of your posts and I thoroughly enjoy the pictures you paint of each novel you have read by those from JK Rowling and even our favorite mystery mastermind Agatha Christie!…
    Ok, now… Back to the Secret History. Despite all the quirks and overbearing characters (Bunny is just a whacko period) I daresay that what I loved most about the novel aside from its solemn and heart-pounding atmosphere was the darkness connected with beauty that is introduced during Richard’s first lecture amongst his fellow Greek students. This theme traverses and penetrates into the essence of the text and underlies the very madness of the murder! A beautiful masterpiece !


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