It has been three years since I’ve read The Secret History by Donna Tartt and I realized today that I’d never sat down and actually wrote a decent review for the book that I’ve proclaimed to love so ardently. Perhaps this means that my review will be more organized— since I’ve had such a long period to mull over any final thoughts and feelings. Alas, that probably won’t happen either. My emotions will always cloud my judgment when it comes to Tartt.
So finally, I’d like to introduce you to the book that altered every other reading experience henceforth.
Its 559 pages of madness.
We start off following college student Richard Papen as he procrastinates over transferring to another school— departing his hometown in California all the way to the sleepy east coast. Upon arriving at the elite Hampden College in Vermont, Richard encounters five students who immediately draw his attention through their peculiarity and illusive behaviors. Little does he know, the haughty cult of classics scholars will flip his world entirely until he no longer recognizes himself or the people around him. This is a story of paranoia and betrayal—and how our minds can slowly draw out our worst selves when faced with enough trauma.
And believe me, this book will cause you as much stress as it does with the characters.
One of the most glorious parts of The Secret History is the writing. Tartt is a superb author; her character are incredibly vivid, her prose are fluid, and her plot will have you turning page after page without realizing you’ve stayed up for several hours past midnight. I’ve never encountered another author with a smilier style, and that definitely made reading this book a unique experience, especially because (paired with the style) the plot was something I’ve only seen touched upon in other stories but never saw completely unfurled. All in all, it was a breath of fresh air…if you can call a story about murder that.
A favorite quote of mine was when Tartt described Camilla Macaulay— the only female leading character amongst a group of boys.
“Being the only female in what was basically a boys’ club must have been difficult for her. Miraculously, she didn’t compensate by becoming hard or quarrelsome. She was still a girl, a slight lovely girl who lay in bed and ate chocolates, a girl whose hair smelled like hyacinth and whose scarves fluttered jauntily in the breeze. But strange and marvelous as she was, a wisp of silk in a forest of black wool, she was not the fragile creature one would have her seem.”
I wish someone would describe me the way Tartt does her characters. You might think it seems overdone, as some of my friends who I’ve forced to read this book have mentioned, but I just believe it adds to the atmosphere. However, there were times when I had to find a dictionary just to understand what the hell was going on. I will warn you there.
N O T E : I also find it important to include trigger warnings before recommending this particular book, and I’ve yet to see anyone include one for TSH. So, please be aware of the following: mentions of incest, smoking, suicide, homophobia, and drug abuse.
Before I read this book I had strictly been reading fantasy only. Contemporary novels, or any novels that don’t include magic and folklore, don’t really fancy me. And while there is mention of Greek mythology receptively in this story, its entirely realistic. This is just another reason why I found it so enthralling: Tartt almost makes it seem like a fantasy, because surely these types of situations can’t happen in real life…but that’s definitely not the case, as you will find when reading a few chapters in.
Another way in which Tartt makes it seem like a fantasy is how she crafts her character. The narrator, Richard, has a few friends outside of the main group; and these friends are how one would imagine a college student from that era (arguably the early 70s… *no one is truly certain when this book takes place, at least I don’t think) would act. Whereas Henry, Bunny, Camilla, Charles, and Francis all seem too composed to be real young adults. They act as though they’re from ancient times— regal and mysterious and tragic. I’m probably not making much sense right now, but this is one of those things that you’ll have to understand through reading it.
If I had to choose a favorite character, of course it would be Francis Abernathy. Not only is he one of the most genuine characters of them all, but his melodrama makes him a comedic relief during the more gruesome scenes. Also, the way Tartt describes him makes me flustered; “Angular and elegant, he was precariously thin, with nervous hands and a shrewd albino face and a short, fiery mop of the reddest hair I had ever seen. I thought (erroneously) that he dressed like Alfred Douglas, or the Comte de Montesquiou: beautifully starchy shirts with French cuffs; magnificent neckties; a black greatcoat that billowed behind him as he walked and made him look like a cross between a student prince and Jack the Ripper.”
If you want to read a book that will pull you out of a slump: read this one.
If you want to read a book that will forever change your perception of storytelling: READ THIS ONE.
It might be tricky to dive into, because the author’s writing is nothing I’ve personally encountered before, but once you’re in…good luck putting it down.
SECRET HISTORY PLAYLIST: Soundcloud link.