The Secret History follows a group of six eccentric college students who, under the influence of their Classics professor, become obsessed by the way of living and thinking of those they study.
But this obsession will only bring out the worst in them, and when an unforeseen yet pivotal event occurs, they are ready to do anything, even the unthinkable, to prevent their downfall.
At the center of this tale converge fierce jealousy, unhealthy friendships and a good dose of moral corruption which will, inevitably, lead to the most terrible acts of desperation.
GENRES: Contemporary, Mystery
The title says it all: The Secret History started out strong and ended up being a huge disappointment. Curiously enough, this is a well-loved book on Goodreads and most people who’ve read it will tell you it’s one of the best books they ever cracked open.
I cannot say that I agree.
The Secret History is an incredibly dense and complex book that deals with a lot of dark themes. My main problem with it is that Donna Tartt didn’t always tackle them properly… or at all. I think it’s also interesting that I was blown away by a fraction of this book, and then reached a point where I just couldn’t bear the characters or the plot anymore.
So, if you care to hear an unpopular opinion or maybe challenge your own positive opinion about The Secret History, well, feel free to tag along for the ride!
WHAT I EXPECTED VS WHAT IT ACTUALLY WAS
The Secret History has been around for a good while already (I believe it was published in 1992) and every single person I’ve heard talk about this book on YouTube or Goodreads loved it.
Loveable yet immoral characters, Greek references and a good dose of evil was what I expected based on other people’s reviews. But the tone and the irritating characters were not what I was anticipating at all.
The story is told from Richard’s point of view, several years after the events that took place “the year that changed his life”. We know from the start, thanks to the prologue, that he, along with four of his friends, killed one of their close friends one day during that year. So, the point of this book is to get to understand how and why they did such a thing as murdering someone, let alone a close friend. But before we get to that crucial day, we are transported back when Richard was still in California, applying for Hampden College in Vermont. Then, we follow him on his journey from California to Vermont, and from studying English Literature to getting accepted into the ranks of this tight group of five Classics students.
I was not expecting to be transported into the head of someone so blind and naive as Richard. From the start, these five Classics students display clear signs of problematic behavior. They’re all pompous and elitists. They get away with everything thanks to their wealthy wallet and are not even slightly interested in the world around them and outside their books. Even though I liked that these characters were so nerdy and quirky, I think Richard was overly fascinated with them and that made him sound pretty stupid to me.
I can understand the appeal, though. And I even fell for it for a good hundred pages or so. There was something mysterious and charismatic about these students that, from the reader’s point of view (and Richard’s), is attractive. Because we are in Richard’s head and that he’s so amazed by these people, we start to like them a little despite their issues. For that reason, I must give credit to Donna Tartt’s writing, which is very descriptive, vivid and elegant (and is the main reason why I loved the book in the first place).
Regardless of the author’s compelling writing, I think it’s pretty obvious when we start thinking about it that these characters are not loveable in any way. And what was the deal with this “charismatic professor” that we encountered only two or three times in the whole book? I think my opinion of the students would have been very different if I could have had a real glimpse into that professor’s way of thinking and teaching. It would have been easier to understand the influence the students were under and maybe that could have made me sympathize with them better.
WHY THE BOOK ONLY GOT WORSE
The first hundred pages or so were bearable. I loved the writing style. I didn’t really like the characters but wanted to know more about them and their rapid descent into evilness out of sheer morbid curiosity, I guess. It’s no secret I love anything dark and creepy. The creepier the better🙃.
But anyways, the book started to drag. And drag. And draaaag. It took a lifetime to get to the murder. And then it took another, longer lifetime to get to the end. Even though everything quickly spirals down after the murder, the author added way too many mundane and unnecessary bits and pieces to the plot. The secondary characters (I’m not talking about the Classics students here but about other random students no one cares about) were given way too much importance.
Although I think the worst here is that the author didn’t properly address the issues the characters were facing as the story took a darker turn. As not to spoil anything, let’s just say that the murder brought out the worst in these characters. Obsession, insane jealousy, alcoholism, and delusion are problems the characters are now facing. And let’s not forget that they’re guilty of murder.
Do they once face the consequences of their acts? No. Because their money, social status and/or friends are always there to keep them out of real trouble. The Secret History could have been a critique of those wealthy young people who get away with everything all the time, but I feel like Donna Tartt was so enamored with her characters that she couldn’t imagine anything really bad happening to them. So it was easier to have them all (or should I say most of them) emerge with their reputation unscathed. I think that the fact that they were never found guilty is a real problem and that issues such as obsession and alcoholism were never treated is another problem.
The Secret History might be aimed at an adult public who is supposed to have the tools to ponder the meaning of such a book, but I don’t think it’s necessarily right to constantly throw in the reader’s face that money and social status are the best problem solvers. I would have expected better from a book as highly rated as The Secret History.
“One likes to think there’s something in it, that old platitude amor vincit omnia. But if I’ve learned one thing in my short sad life, it is that that particular platitude is a lie. Love doesn’t conquer everything. And whoever thinks it does is a fool.”
Overall, The Secret History isn’t a bad book in itself. Donna Tartt’s writing is compelling and I found some of the best quotes in there. I just don’t understand the hype surrounding this novel considering the questionable implicit message it sends.