The Secret History

Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.

Donna Tartt, The Secret History

The Secret History follows Richard Papen as he recounts his time as part of an elite group of students studying Classics. Richard starts off as a transfer student, confused as to his path in life. A penchant for Greek convinces him to approach Julian Morrow, the very selective professor of Greek and Latin. After managing to prove his worth, Richard finds himself sucked into a world of secrets surrounding the five other students in the class: Henry, Francis, Charles, Camilla, and Bunny. While they seem keen on enveloping Richard into their group, Richard can’t shake the feeling that he’s missing out on something vital going on. As Richard falls deeper into this strange group, he’s thrown into more than he could’ve ever imagined and could’ve ever wanted to be a part of. 

When I picked this book up, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to savor it or rush through it. I was almost forced to slow down through this book because of the narration style which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. The story is narrated from Richard’s memory of the events starting with his thought process of transferring and his familial background. The important parts of the story don’t really start until about 50 or so pages in and that almost forces the reader to slow down and to really understand the narrator. The narrator himself is pretty unreliable and he even takes the time to admit that his recollection of the events aren’t very clear. The memory recollection is the one major question that I had that wasn’t touched on and that’s how old Richard is when he’s recalling this story. The rest of the story feels rather neatly wrapped up and I did appreciate that. Richard’s attention to detail doesn’t feel forced or like it’s the author’s voice trying to peek through but rather, it seems like Richard himself sat down to write a book and was trying to recall everything in as much detail as possible. This was probably the best part of the book in my opinion (but I’m a sucker for an unreliable narrator). 

The characterization is probably the next best thing. At first, having a group of five side characters seemed like too much and I was worried that a few of the characters were being relegated to unknowable bystanders (Francis and Camilla). But, as the story progressed, I realized that they weren’t unknowable, Richard’s relationships with those two just took time to develop. This added a sense of realism to the story because in real life, relationships take time to develop. I also felt like portraying Richard as closer with certain members of the group and distant from other members was also realistic. I do think that I would’ve liked to see some of the different relationships between characters who weren’t close to Richard. While this book was narrated in first-person, I almost wonder what a third-person narration might be like in order to get a more complete picture of the group. But this is just a thought. 

I also commend the time taken to create the setting. The story probably takes place in the mid-to-late eighties and the story is filled with references that date the story. I think that Tartt does this not only to almost excuse how certain events happen, but also to insinuate that this might be very (very) loosely based on her own experiences in college. This book feels like a novel written by someone very close to academia and considering how young Tartt was when she wrote this, it might have been seriously influenced by her time in college. This also comes into play when getting into the motives of the characters. Many actions that they take feel almost juvenile, like if they were an adult, they may have taken more precautions. Regardless of how smart the characters are, there is a sense of college age decision making that impacts much of the decision making in the story. 

Overall, I adored this book. I think that it was one of those books that slowly build up to a gorgeous climax and it has one of the best conclusions that I have ever read. I truly don’t think I would change a thing about this book at all. I do want to caution that it is a bit long and much of the story revolves around getting to know the characters, but I found that this makes the book all the more technically beautiful. I recommend this for everyone, but especially for those who (like me) love anything to do with academia and mysteries. 

RATING: 10/10

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