REVIEW: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History
by Donna Tartt
5 out of 5 stars by BookLadyApril

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…

If you have a passion for the intellectual and somewhat pretentious this book may become your new favorite. I, unsure if this is a good or bad thing, happen to fall right into that category and thus I am absolutely mad for this book. Donna Tartt has swept me right off my feet into the world of her characters and, quite frankly, I don’t want to come back yet.

“Beauty is rarely soft or consolatory. Quite the contrary. Genuine beauty is always quite alarming.” 

The writing in this work is absolutely dazzling. In fact, I would venture to say that, for some, it will be too tough a read depending on what your choice reading materials may be. (Did that sound pretentious? Good. Because this book is very much full of that.) Tartt’s exploration of her characters is full spectrum–they are both intimate to the reader and yet manage to maintain an air of mystery throughout the entire work. I have no qualms that Tartt knows precisely what each of her characters would do in any given situation and it shows in her work.

“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.”

The story itself unfolds unlike any other piece of murder-related fiction I have ever read. I hesitate to say “murder mystery” because that conjures up thoughts of Agatha Christie but mostly it’s just about a murder without the whodunit theme, which I thought I might not like in the beginning but I was not disappointed in the slightest. If you like finding out who the killer is on the last ten pages of the novel then go ahead and skip this one. If you read the first two pages then you already know what’s happened. What is remarkable is slow simmering of the unfolding of events that gives you the entire story as it played out over time and the outcomes of each character.

“Could it be because it reminds us that we are alive, of our mortality, of our individual souls- which, after all, we are too afraid to surrender but yet make us feel more miserable than any other thing? But isn’t it also pain that often makes us most aware of self? It is a terrible thing to learn as a child that one is a being separate from the world, that no one and no thing hurts along with one’s burned tongues and skinned knees, that one’s aches and pains are all one’s own. Even more terrible, as we grow old, to learn that no person, no matter how beloved, can ever truly understand us. Our own selves make us most unhappy, and that’s why we’re so anxious to lose them, don’t you think?” 

This is a fascinating and morbid read. The characters I would not say are “cold”, as other reviews have stated, but instead emotionally realistic. The entire novel is written in such a way that each character really thinks the next thing that happens will be absolutely devastating, crushing, life ruining… but it never is. Bad things happen and life continues on. It affects some, doesn’t touch others and yet nothing comes to a screeching halt when you feel like falling apart inside. I felt that was the most realistic aspect of the entire work.

“Does such a thing as “the fatal flaw,” that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature?” 

Overall, I feel there is no real underlying message to be gained from reading this book. It does not feel there is any moral of the story; it is just an insight into a point in time in the lives of the characters–almost like peeking into a window from afar before continuing your stroll down the sidewalk. I’m sure there are points of imperfection about this book but right now I can’t name one.

Also by Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch, The Little Friend

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