Review: The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

I suppose if I had a moment of doubt at all it was then, as I stood in that cold, eerie stairwell looking back at the apartment from which I had come. Who were these people? How well did I know them? Could I trust any of them, really, when it came right down to it? Why, of all people, had they chosen to tell me?  (p. 199)

Richard Papen transferred to Hampden College in New England, after attending one year of college in his California hometown.  He immediately fell in with a select group of students studying Classics: Henry, Francis, Bunny, and twins Charles and Camilla. Their professor fostered camaraderie among the group, and isolation from the rest of the college and its social scene.  From the first page, we know that Bunny dies, and that the rest of the group played some part in his death.  The book showed how these events came to pass, and the profound impact Bunny’s death had on the others.

This book was seriously creepy, and as Donna Tartt set the stage for Bunny’s demise, the suspense grew.  I couldn’t put it down, even though it evoked feelings like watching Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Strangers on a Train, and invaded my sleep for several days.  I really don’t want to say much about the details, because it would spoil the story.  Suffice to say this was a shocking and yet somehow realistic portrayal of friendships gone bad.

Characterizations are one of The Secret History‘s strongest elements. Richard, as narrator, is the everyman through whom we see the others.  We learn of their personalities, their histories, and their dysfunctional behaviors.  We can even (almost) understand the circumstances leading to Bunny’s death, and sympathize with its aftereffects on their lives and friendships.  And oddly, these strong characterizations were also the book’s main weakness.  None of them seemed like 19-year-olds, even ones who attend a prestigious liberal arts college.  It wasn’t just their unfettered access to ridiculous sums of money, but also their extreme independence from adult figures, and some elements of their conversational style.  As much as I was caught up in the suspense, I was also conscious of suspending disbelief.  But if you can do so, you will fully enjoy this novel.

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16 thoughts on “Review: The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

  1. Yeah it’s creepy and a fast absorbing read. I havent read it since 1992 but I remember it caught me up completely despite some faults. Glad you liked.

    • Susan, I was encouraged by your comments when I mentioned this on my “October book stack” post — thanks for the recommendation!

  2. My all-time favorite book. (Well, not counting “The Boxcar Children,” my childhood love.) I still think the ending weakish, though.

  3. So glad you enjoyed this Laura! I haven’t read it since it came out but remember being completely absorbed in it. I do take your point about the maturity of the protagonists – I think I just put this down at the time to the fact that Americans were obviously more sophisticated than us Brits!!

    • kaggsy, as parent to one of those American 19-year-olds, I can assure you that you are mistaken! Seriously, I’m sure this stood out because of my current association with that age group. Still, I enjoyed the book!

  4. It’s several years since I read this and I remember thoroughly enjoying it, but you are right about the characters not sounding like typical nineteen year olds I kept having to remind myself they were teenagers and not twenty eight.

    • Exactly, Ali! They just said things and did things that I couldn’t see a typical university student doing. Ah well, still an enjoyable read.

  5. I just read this book a few weeks ago and loved it. I completely agree that the college kids seemed so different than what you’d expect college students to be like, but for some reason, I was thinking of Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart in The House of Mirth. You know, all those wealthy people with nothing to do but drink and philosophize on big expanses of lawns and sprawling mansions. :) It was quite the good creepy story to read in the autumn months, that’s for sure. Here’s my review as well: http://www.coffeeandabookchick.com/2012/10/the-secret-history-by-donna-tartt.html

    I picked up her second book, The Little Friend, at the library but the due date is upon me! Must renew!

    • Rebecca, I had this book on my shelves for AGES before I got to it, so I can completely relate! I hope you like it, whenever you happen to read it.

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