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.