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REVIEW: The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

January 24, 2018
REVIEW: The Secret History, by Donna TarttThe Secret History (20th Anniversary Edition) by Donna Tartt
Published by Penguin on August 3rd 2017
Genres: Contemporary, Death & Dying, Drugs, Alcohol, Substance Abuse, Fiction, Friendship, General, Greek & Roman, Social Issues, Social Themes
Pages: 640
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
Amazon // The Book Depository

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.

how do i even begin describing my feelings for The Secret History? it’s a book i never thought i’d read, or enjoy. however, after a lot of praise, i decided to pick it up on a whim. and i loved it. so so so much.

i’m surprised i enjoyed it – partly because i usually don’t read adult fiction, but also because it’s NOT typically likable. the characters are kind of awful and everything moves soooooooo slowly. the book is also (almost) unnecessarily huge. but these are all factors that made me like The Secret History even MORE.

“Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.”

– Donna Tartt, The Secret History; chapter one, paragraph one

the story follows a Californian named Richard who moves to a private college in New England. he becomes enthralled in a group of rich, pretentious students obsessed with the classics – and they murder someone. (that’s not really a spoiler; it’s the first thing you learn.) but that’s not really what the story is ~about~. those are the facts but it feels indescribable. it’s like trying to explain someone’s LIFE – filled with twists and turns and filler. in a lot of ways, it IS like reading about someone’s life.

so, these characters: they’re terrible. they’re either racist or homophobic or abusive or problematic in some other way. BUT for some reason, i kind of love them. i was somehow drawn to all of them, in their own individual ways. they were all so interesting and authentic. the story is told in first-person, past-tense and it actually feels like Richard (the main character) is telling this story – not an author telling a story of a story.

my favorite part of this novel is, by far, the ambiance. it was probably the main reason i felt so strongly about everything. i could see them all so clearly – a grainy, tinted, picturesque film in the 60s. set on the backdrop of lush trees and greek literature, it all seems so… perfect. the stark contrast of the actual plot was still part of it; it just felt like a stain or a layer underneath the costumes. it’s so picturesque it almost seems fake (in a real way???). it’s a contemporary, but Donna Tartt’s writing makes it so atmospheric it almost feels like a fantasy (it’s not actually, but you know what i mean).

this book feels uselessly big. much of it is just Richard recalling little things on their year – trips to the bar, dinner conversations, so on. however, if the story was anything less, i don’t think i’d be able to appreciate it as much. these small, mundane things added up to the bigger picture. it was WHY i could see the setting so clearly, and why the characters were so fleshed out. it reminded me of real life because real life is usually filled with filler. buuut it is quite long and difficult to finish in one sitting.

the writing took some getting used to. it starts off with many references to characters and actions you’ve yet to learn, but it’s written in a way that assumes you already know. as the pages turn, you’re like, “OHH that makes sense now.” immediately upon finishing, i felt compelled to start all over again. (i actually did start again, about halfway through, then again after i actually finished.) that’s to say: it’ll probably be a joy to reread.

those were my main thoughts on The Secret History. albeit long and unusual, i loved this novel.

Rating Report
Overall: 4.8

have you read The Secret History? if you haven’t WHAT ARE YOU DOING GO READ IT. if you have, let me know your thoughts on it in the comments below!

Alexandra Ling

alexandra is a twenty-year-old content creator and avid reader. when she's not on the internet or hiding behind pages, you can find her training to be a professional ballet dancer or practicing yoga. she currently resides in los angeles, california.