Donna Tartt: The Secret History (Review)

So this is my second novel by Donna Tartt – and her first novel. And it’s an amazing first novel. Our main character, Richard Papen, starts attending Hampden College when he’s 19. Here, he starts taking Classics studies. Now at this college, Classics studies is only for the select few. In fact, the entire class consists of 5 other students – Henry, Francis, Bunny and the twins Camilla and Charles. And their professor, Julian, requires them to take all their classes with him – only in a few cases does he allow them to take classes with other professors. This means, that the Classics group becomes a little tight knit group of friends. Now the other 5 have known each other for a while and are for the most part very privileged kids and this is the group Richard tries to enter.

And he does succeed. To a certain extent. He becomes friends with them but still, he feels that they keep something hidden from him. When he finds out that they’ve had a bacchanal where they’ve accidentally killed a man, he is drawn even closer in – and finds out, that he wasn’t the only one left out.

In the very beginning of the book, in the prologue, we’re told that the group kills one of their own. They kill Bunny. The rest of the book is an investigation of the events that led to the murder – and what happens afterwards.

This is a mystery, an intellectual thriller. It’s a book about very privileged kids, not very lovable or charming, but you still end up somewhat caring about what happens to them. And you care a lot about what happens in the book. Each time I sat down to read just a little bit, I ended reading much further and for longer time than I intended. This is a page turner in it’s own way – especially after Bunny has died.

In a lot of ways this book is over the top – we have murders, suicides, drugs, incest, sex, alcoholism. Everything is exaggerated. But it reminds me of the Greek tragedies where everything too was so excessive. In a good way, I mean. I think the structure of this book can be viewed in the light of hubris, ate and nemesis – like any good Greek tragedy. For the first part we follow the characters’ lives. Their self-indulgences, their aloofness towards other students, their relationships with each other. And in a lot of ways, they’re really arrogant. It’s a tough group for Richard to get into because of this – but when he becomes a part of it, he becomes a part of the arrogance as well. Especially Henry, the leader of the group, is so superior in his intellect and knowledge that he hardly can avoid feeling superior to everyone else. But we all know, the gods punish hubris – and then the madness begins. They reenact a bacchanal, kill someone and that leads to the whole affair with Bunny. Also – the whole idea of them being able to have a bacchanal is pure hubris. Of course, it’s Henry’s idea. And after the bacchanal, after all the craziness, after ate, we know what follows. Nemesis. If there’s one thing this book teaches, it is that actions have consequences – even if you think you can get away with murder, there’s a price to pay. I like that in a book that has the studies of Classics as a major part of the plot, the author uses the traditional Greek story telling tricks to tell her story.

I was fascinated mostly with the character of Henry. He personifies the whole hubris-ate-nemesis theory in this book. He’s so intelligent and so intellectual, he can read several languages and has a huge knowledge. But he doesn’t know how to live. How to act. How to just be. Until he murders someone, that is.

Still, I have one issue with this book. Or I think I do. I’m not sure. The more I think about it, the more perfect the ending may be. At first, I thought it was too easy. It shocked me but I thoughtt the author could have solved it better. But now, I think it was just right. I don’t think it could have ended any way. Greek tragedies also always ended with people dying left and right. Why shouldn’t this modern tragedy not end up the same way?

  • Title: The Secret History
  • Author: Donna Tartt
  • Publisher: Penguin Book
  • Year: 1992
  • Pages: 629 pages
  • Stars: 5 out of 5 stars

6 thoughts on “Donna Tartt: The Secret History (Review)

  1. You know, I didn’t like this book at all. You are right that a lot of it seemed exaggerated. The group pass themselves off as intellectuals, but really they are just spoiled, college kids.

    I was a bit disappointed in this book, since so many people recommended it to me as a good read.

    • Yeah, they’re just spoiled rich kids that have always gotten their ways. Or at least most of them. Mostly Henry and Bunny, I think. I did like the twins and Francis – but of course, they’re the narrator’s favorites too and he’s a bit unreliable.
      I really liked this book. I’ve read both of Tartt’s novels and loved them both. And for a debut novel, I thought this was amazing.

    • You don’t need to like the characters, that’s not the point. I think this story is simple, but sublime. The way Donna has written it makes it very special!

  2. This review (and its subsequent comments) is completely unfair. In criticising it because the characters are rich, you miss the point and charm of them all. Nobody, aside from Bunny (who, funnily, is penniless) is interested in their money, never splash out on anything. Sure they are rich, but they all lead lives with simple, non-material pleasures – reading, dinners at their apartment, drinking, going for drives, etc.

    As for the comment about it being an excuse to spout off about Greek – wtf? Greek is a central parallel to the whole plot, providing a wonderful, constant backdrop of tragedy and drama.

    Loosen up your imaginations a bit guys! This is a sublime book, one of the finest ever written, you’re entitled to disagree with that but no for the reasons offered already.

    Happy reading! 🙂

    • I think you misunderstood my review a bit – or maybe I didn’t express myself clearly. I do think that the way it feels exaggerated is because it’s a parallel to Greek tragedies – just as I write that the characters can be seen going through hubris, ate and nemesis.
      I do think it’s important that they are rich – they have the money to do what they want and not care about it. Yes, they don’t splash – but they do get out to dinner a lot and drink even more. Unlike Richard who is forced to spend part of a winter in a dreadful room, freezing half to death.
      And I totally agree with you – it’s a fantastic novel! That’s why I gave it 5 stars! I have really liked both Tartt’s novels and I so hope her new one comes out soon!

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