Book Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I’m very late to reading The Secret History, but I thought it was worth writing a review anyway for anyone who hasn’t read it either (I’ve tried to limit any spoilers) and to try and organise my thoughts on this insane book.

Firstly, this wasn’t what I expected it to be at all. I picked it up because I saw the cover in every dark academia post and I’d heard there were Greek and Latin references so I was excited to read that. I didn’t even read the plot so I was surprised when I realised it was based around a murder (I don’t know how I’ve managed to evade all spoilers)!

The Secret History: From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The ...

The Plot:

“I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.”

Richard, a seemingly average Californian boy, is eventually accepted into an exclusive Greek class at his college, by the eccentric professor who can do no wrong in his eyes. He enters the world of a mysterious group of rich and sophisticated classics majors he has been watching from afar, but we quickly see the cracks in this shiny world.

From the outset, we find out that Richard and this close, alluring group have murdered their friend only months after he first met them. The majority of the novel builds up to this murder and then its physical and mental consequences on the characters.

This isn’t exactly a murder mystery: we already know the details of the actual murder. Instead, why find out why it happened– and it’s twisted, trust me. In a way, there’s even more tension by revealing the murder then starting from the beginning, because it’s all you can think about at first.

The Writing:

A lot of people have complained about Donna Tartt’s style of writing. The Secret History is about more than just the plot, and Tartt’s extra details and storytelling only enhance the book for me. The effect of Tartt’s meandering style is a mixture of recounting average college life (with a concerning amount of drinking and drugs), profound revelations about life, classical references and Richard slowly getting to know the characters and their ugly truths. This sounds convoluted, but I found that the book flowed brilliantly and the pace wasn’t actually that slow. There were a few details that I thought were irrelevant (not that every detail has to be essential to the story) or just didn’t really fit in with the story, but overall I loved her writing.

It might not be for you but once I got used to the writing I was amused by the side notes instead of frustrated. So yes, the book could have been about half of it’s actual length, but this was a feature that I ended up really enjoying!

The Characters:

“But how,” said Charles, who was close to tears, “how can you possibly justify cold-blooded murder?’
Henry lit a cigarette. “I prefer to think of it,” he had said, “as redistribution of matter.”

It was hard to grasp the idea at first that you aren’t meant to like the characters. In fact, out of the group the only person I didn’t end up completely hating was Francis (and partially Richard and Camilla out of pity). Even though the characters are fucked up, we still see their humanity (in most of them anyway!). I found myself getting oddly attached in spite of myself and being concerned about what would happen to them: how they would tie up this loose end, how they would reconcile after that argument. It was hard to get used to but it was so refreshing. Tartt definitely didn’t shy away from their good and bad qualities, no matter how disturbing they were.

One thing I wish she could have explored more was sexuality, or at least more explicitly. There was some homophobic language and misconceptions that weren’t challenged or cleared up? This isn’t really a spoiler, but Richard was very attached to other people’s sexualities as well, and it just felt weird that nothing more was said about it.

The Verdict:


4 stars!

Thanks for reading! It was a bit of a messy review because I’m still trying to get my head around it. What do you think of the Secret History?


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