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The Secret History

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Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last—inexorably—into evil.

559 pages, Paperback

First published September 16, 1992

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About the author

Donna Tartt

41 books29.3k followers
Donna Tartt is an American author who has achieved critical and public acclaim for her novels, which have been published in forty languages. In 2003 she received the WH Smith Literary Award for her novel, The Little Friend, which was also nominated for the Orange Prize for Fiction. She won the Pulitzer Prize and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Fiction for her most recent novel, The Goldfinch.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 67,250 reviews
Profile Image for emma.
1,869 reviews54.7k followers
December 22, 2022
My original review of this wasn't much of anything, because I believed (and still kind of do) that everything worth saying about this book has been said.

However, there are things that I believe no one should say emerging in real time, and so contributing my likely already-expressed thoughts might counterbalance them, to some degree.

In my first foray at writing about this (which you can still see below), I focused on the immersion of it. I said I "loved" its characters, though of course I meant more that I loved them as figures, considering they are unlikable murderers. I wrote about it vaguely and glowingly, thinking everyone had sort of...gotten the point of the book, already.

But then I read this review in Gawker, so I'm coming back.

The Secret History follows mainly our narrator, Richard, as he looks back on his time in the classics program of a liberal arts college. Richard is unhappy, impressionable, desperate. His values are more ideas than ideals - vague and dim reflections of what love, and beauty, and wisdom, concepts he's never known, might feel or look like, rather than what they are.

He arrives at his preppy and prestigious(ish) New England college to slowly become obsessed and then part of the mysterious and selective classics program, a cultlike group of trust fund babies led by an often-overstepping and charismatic professor.

Coming from a poor and abusive background, where beauty is nowhere to be found, Richard wants nothing more than to immerse and lose himself in this group of wealthy and charming students. He wants to befriend them, to sleep with them, to live with them, to do everything he can to become them.

Including, as they indulge in ever-spiraling hedonism, murder.

And it never works.

When our story ends, our group is decimated, some members dead, some irrevocably changed, all unwilling to return to the story of that fateful year - all except Richard, who is unable to leave it behind.

When I hear this, I don't believe that the point of the story, or what Tartt is trying to tell us, is that a love of beauty is equivalent to an amoral life. I don't think she condemns an appreciation for the aesthetic, or even a classical scholarship.

I don't think you're supposed to like these characters, or even think they're very realistic - they are, after all, portraits in hindsight written by someone in the throes of unrequited obsession.

I don't think you're supposed to relate to them, or to see their story as something that might happen to you if you read too much Greek myth or like pretty things too much.

To quote the article that inspired the fit of rage that has me typing away, I don't think this is "about all the things [its writer] loved," while "miss[ing] the point of them entirely." At the age of seventeen, they continue, they "wanted (I thought) exactly what its youthful characters wanted: a poetic life, a mythic life, a life shot through with meaning. I loved (I thought) exactly what its characters loved: nostalgic emblems of an era imagined as significant."

To that I say: huh?

As I grow older, I care less for lovely or perfect or nice or even good (in the moral definition of the word) characters, and find myself only wanting to read about the unlikable, the complex, the ones who have something to say on what I shouldn't do, rather than teach me about what I should.

It was clear to me that The Secret History is not the latter example, but the former.

Our merry band of classics fetishists may think they are living a life of poetry and meaning, but we, the readers, know they aren't. We know that life's beauty lies not in pleasure without regard for others, in the fulfillment of selfish desires, but in case we get confused, Donna Tartt shows us that a life lived by those guidelines leads to irrevocably damaged relationships, unfading pain, and death.

The Secret History is not a nihilistic book because its characters' behaviors result in no meaning. Quite the opposite - it is a book about what makes life meaningful by showing us what meaning is not.

The Gawker piece quotes a Tartt essay in which she writes, “'Something in the spirit longs for meaning — longs to believe in a world order where nothing is purposeless, where character is more than chemistry, and people are something more than a random chaos of molecules,'” and in this vein concludes, "To take Tartt the essayist seriously is to wager on that meaning. Even if that means leaving Hampden behind."

And I would agree. To find meaning, one must leave Hampden behind - for it was never intended that what happened there should be lived by as example.

(I also think there's something very interesting in the class dynamics here. But I'll save that for the next time I get mad enough to write almost 1,000 words.)

Bottom line: Book so nice I reviewed it twice.

book club update

this is the july pick for the beautiful world book club!! elle and i will be vibing amidst the dark academia and the gluttony and the classics. please join us!!

original review

I think this is a story about the destructive power of guilt. I think this is about

Here is the problem with reviewing every book I read: Sometimes I throw around terms before I really need them, and then once I read THE book, The Story that requires and deserves that descriptor, I have nothing to give it.


Right now I have this problem. Because I have used the word “immersive” before, and immediately upon my completion of this book it became clear that I should have saved it for right now.

I felt like I lived inside these pages. I felt like I began to think in the beautiful and sharp prose that fills them. I felt like I knew the characters, ate decadent lunches and walked the snowy campus and whispered with them. I felt an aching emptiness, a genuine longing, when I read the final words.

I miss living here.

This was very, very slow - to the point that about halfway through I said (inexplicably, aloud), “I don’t know what they’ll even do for the rest of the book” - and yet I was gripped by it.

It’s genuinely masterful.

I love Richard and I LOVE Camilla and I love Francis and I, fine, okay, at least like Charles and Henry and even Bunny and Julian.

And I miss them all.

This is an incredible work, but maybe the most incredible thing is how the reader is Richard. I, too, miss my bygone days at my prestigious New England college with my whip-smart group of eccentric friends, and, like him, I am too quickly forced to realize the fallacy of such a feeling.

After all, it was all a fiction.

Bottom line: I’m raising this to a five star rating.


you'll have to excuse me, i'd love to actually write something here but my brain is broken and i am incapable of thought.

also seems absurd to try to use words when donna tartt took all the good ones.

review to come / 4.5 stars

currently-reading updates

me: *is slightly behind on my reading challenge*

also me: *starts a 600-page book*
Profile Image for Melanie.
1,176 reviews98.9k followers
December 31, 2019
“Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.”

I have never read anything like this book in my entire life. I laid in bed for over an hour last night upon finishing this book, just tossing and turning and thinking about everything I just consumed. I still don’t think I can put my feelings into words, but I can honestly say this book was a cathartic experience for me, and the irony of the word “catharsis” being a Greek rooted word is not lost on me, because if this book is anything it’s a modern day Greek tragedy.

The Secret History is told in a unique style, which is a man reminiscing on some significant events that took place in his college life a bit over a year ago. So, we follow a younger version of Richard, who is finally starting his life away from his abusive and poor family in California. He gets accepted into an elite college in Vermont, and moves across the county in hopes of a fresh start.

Upon arriving to the college, Richard is denied entry into an Ancient Greek course, because the professor that teaches it only allows enrollment to his small, handpicked, group of students that seem almost cult-like. Needless to say, Richard becomes utterly obsessed with the five students in this group and the professor, Julian Morrow, himself. And with a turn of good luck, and by solving a Greek problem, Richard is accepted into this exclusive group.

Yet, in the prologue we find out that Richard, and four others from the group, murdered one of the other students who they are supposed to have a very close friendship with. The Secret History is then told in two parts, one being the events that took place leading up to the death of their fellow classmate, and then one part being all the events that take place after he is murdered.

Bunny is the poor soul that is unfortunately murdered by his peers, yet he’s a racist bigot and you’ll be kind of happy he’s dead, for the most part. Richard, as stated in all the paragraphs above, is the narrator looking back on the events that took place. Henry is my personal favorite, but perhaps the worst of the bunch. Or maybe the best, I’m not really sure, but that’s truly the beauty of this story. Twins, Charles and Camilla. Charles is a bad alcoholic and drug user, and Camilla steals most people’s heart and/or affection. And lastly, we have Francis, who owns a country home that is the stage for many events that take place in this book. Oh, and everyone but Richard has money, even though Richard tries his damnedest to keep that a secret.

“What we did was terrible, but still I don't think any of us were bad, exactly; chalk it up to weakness on my part, hubris on Henry’s, too much Greek prose composition – whatever you like.”

All the characters are morally grey to just generally horrible people, but you completely ignore it because Donna Tartt weaves this hypnotic spell with her writing, that you feel like you are reading this book in a dream like lull. The Secret History is unlike anything I’ve ever read before, and I’m not sure I’ll ever read anything quite like it again.

I also want to touch upon sexuality in this book, because a lot of the members in this group are not straight in the slightest. Like, maybe the only ones that were completely straight were Bunny and Camilla. I’m not saying that the queerness in this book is vilified, but it’s for sure not shown in the best of lights. So please use caution while going into this.

And this book is so very heavy in general, so please use caution while reading. Content/Trigger warnings for slut shaming, use of the R word, homophobia, hate speech, fatphobic comments, racist comments, animal cruelty, sexual assault, incest, performing rituals, suicide, alcoholism, drug abuse, and murder.

I know this review is probably not one of my best, and I know I’m being super vague about all these big themes, but this book is just on a whole other level. Maybe this book is about five new adults dealing with the consequences of murder in a very human and realistic way. Maybe it’s about how we are all just trying to fit in and find family, by whatever unhealthy means available and/or possible. Maybe this book is about birth and death and how important the time between those two points truly is. But I do believe with my whole heart that this book would best be experienced blind, and to just go in and feel all the feelings that Donna Tartt will serve you.

While finishing the book, me and Paloma had a discussion about the ending and how Greek heroes’ tales normally go. We talked about how murder taints everything, and how blood is the only thing that can purify it. We talked about how wearing masks is so important, yet death is another mask that we will all eventually wear. God, I’m being so cryptic, but if you’ve read the book maybe this paragraph will mean something to you, because it means the world to me.

Overall, I know I sound like a broken record, but this was one of the most unique reading experiences of my life. I honest to God just do not have the words to put in this review how this book made me feel. I will say that it very much feels like a spell is being cast upon you while reading. Like, I am almost positive that Donna Tartt cannot be a human being, because she is such an exclusive enigma. Also, I think I’ve developed a huge crush on her, so there’s that at least. I can say very confidently that I will remember this book, and the feelings it gave me while reading, for the rest of my life.

“Beauty is rarely soft or consolatory. Quite the contrary. Genuine beauty is always quite alarming.”

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Buddy read with Paloma! ❤
Profile Image for nostalgebraist.
Author 4 books457 followers
March 27, 2014
Thank god it's over. I don't think I can surpass the review Nick wrote earlier tonight, but here goes . . .

The good:

--This book is well-written, at least in a certain contextless sense. There are many sentences in it (occasionally, even paragraphs) that, if taken by themselves, look like they might have been from a book worth reading.

--At least two of the central characters (I'm thinking of Bunny and Henry) are vividly portrayed and interesting figures. (Unfortunately, one of them dies halfway through -- that's not a spoiler, as it's revealed in the prologue -- and the other largely fades from view in the second half.)

--There's at least a 200-page stretch in which the book is an exciting page-turner. (Unfortunately, it's over 500 pages long.)

The bad:

--Besides the two characters mentioned above, the others are frustratingly thin. Francis has no personality traits besides being stereotypically gay; Camilla has no personality traits besides being a generic female love interest (in a completely unappealing subplot that seems to have been included on the Hollywood logic that no story is complete without the protagonist falling in love) and thus having a putatively alluring reticence and mystique; I'm not sure Charles has any discernible personality traits at all. These three characters are rarely absent -- at least one of them appears in virtually every scene -- and given that it's almost impressive how poorly developed they are. Other characters suffer for the opposite reason -- for instance, Julian, the charismatic professor who teaches Greek to the central characters, exerts a supposedly profound influence on their worldviews but barely seems to exist in the story itself.

--The story's climax occurs around halfway through, and the remaining ~250 pages are devoted to an absurdly long series of tacky soap opera plotlines that appear and then disappear every 20 pages. The subject matter of these storylines -- incest, drunk driving, stealing drugs from someone's grandmother (!), smoking pot and worrying that someone's mom is going to find out (!!) -- feel so strainingly lurid and/or stereotypically teenage, and so irrelevant to the themes of the first half, that it often felt like some moral tract about Bad Teens Doing Drugs had been spliced onto the end of a totally different book.

--The biggest flaw, which was what really ruined the book for me: the style of the narration does not fit the subject matter. This is a book about a group of wealthy and pompous but otherwise ordinary college students committing murder in cold blood. Surely someone looking back on such an act would be plunged into a bunch of somewhat abstract reflections on how they came to do they things they did, what led them to get involved with their co-conspirators, what this all means about them as a person and a moral actor, etc. But that isn't the kind of book Tartt wants to write. She wants to write in a contemporary litfic / creative writing style in which abstract ideas about human behavior are conveyed only implicitly, through character behaviors and well-chosen details — “show, don’t tell.”

So you get all these overly mannered descriptions of the narrator noticing some shoes lying on the ground and talking about how the shoes made him feel and so forth, and you just want to say, “okay, but Richard, what does it all mean? I know you must have some big abstract thoughts about what it all means — how could you not? — and I don’t know why won’t you just tell me about them instead of telling me about how the campus looked in spring.” There are narrators for whom this kind of bland immediacy reads as characterization, but in this case it really felt like Tartt was just snapping together two incompatible building blocks -- like she sat down one day and said “I am going to write a ‘literary novel’ and it will be about ‘ordinary people committing murder’ ” and the result was this strange incongruous thing. The book feels so much like a reductio ad absurdum of the conventions of mainstream literary fiction -- the gently controlled narrative voice, the "deftly chosen" sensory detail, the distaste for essayistic digressions -- that at times I started to wonder if I was reading a parody of the genre.

There are occasional attempts to provide a moral or conceptual gloss on the whole thing, as when, in the very first paragraph, the narrator declares that his "tragic flaw" is "a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs." But ideas like this aren't borne out by the narrative itself -- we never get a sense of what the narrator means by "the picturesque," and his bland, passive behavior doesn't seem to be characterized by a "morbid longing" for anything. Which brings me to my final point . . .

--Lots of wasted potential. Some of the subject matter here is really interesting: say, the idea of people who try to apply an ancient Greek mindset to the modern world, or the question of how a group of initially innocuous people could be led inexorably by circumstance to kill one of their friends. But the whole thing is just so under-analyzed, so unclear about what its ideas are even as it desperately wants to be a book about big, profound ideas. References to the difference between ancient and modern mindsets, or to various interpretations of the murder, are occasionally tossed out but never grow roots; they drown in the ocean of pointless plot. An interesting idea will crop up every 50 pages of so, and Tartt will smother it in its cradle and then write 50 more pages of binge drinking and soap opera convolutions as if in penance. It's telling that Julian, the Greek professor, shows up so rarely, because the book clearly wants to be about his worldview and the effect it had on his students, and if he'd actually made more than a few appearances Tartt might have had to clear up exactly what his worldview was and present some clear, arguable ideas about what it did to these students. What would her creative writing professors make of that? Show, don't tell!
Profile Image for Martine.
145 reviews691 followers
September 17, 2009
The first paragraph of The Secret History roughly sums up the mood of the book. In it, the narrator, Richard Papen, says that he thinks his fatal flaw is 'a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs'. If you can relate to these words, chances are you'll love The Secret History. If not, you'll probably wonder what the fuss is all about. Personally, I can totally relate to these words, so I love the book. I've read it over half a dozen times, and while I do think it has its problems, I never fail to find it utterly gripping.

The Secret History is both an intellectual novel of ideas and a murder mystery without the whodunnit element. The reader learns right on the first page that Richard and his friends have killed one among their midst. The rest of the book goes on to explain how they came to their gruesome deed and what happened to them afterwards. Against all odds, it makes for compelling reading, despite the fact that you know right from the start who the killers are. Such is the power of Tartt's writing that you find yourself turning page after page, waiting for answers, justifications and possibly a sign of remorse. Once these have been dealt with, the book loses a bit of its power, but until that time, it's near perfect.

Donna Tartt's great gift as a writer is her magnificent talent for description. Her evocation of life at a small private university in New England with its oddball mix of ivory-tower intellectuals and ditzy cokeheads is rich in detail, both shocking and funny. If it's not entirely realistic, she makes it so. Likewise, her skill at characterisation is superb. While Richard is not entirely convincing as a male narrator (a fact I find more noticeable every time I re-read the book), he and his friends make up a fascinating cast of characters: six aloof, self-absorbed and arrogant intellectuals who are obsessed with ancient Greece and don't particularly care for modern life. They're snobs and they have major issues, but somehow that only makes them more alluring. Together, they form the ultimate inner circle, the kind of tight-knit group you know should always stay together. Which makes it almost understandable that they should be willing to kill anyone who might jeopardise that group dynamic, incomprehensible though this may seem to the average reader.

I can think of many reasons why The Secret History strikes such a chord with me. For one thing, I have a thing for timeless and ethereal stories, and this is one of those. Somehow the book has a dreamlike, almost hypnotic quality, despite it being very firmly set in the rather unromantic 1980s. I love that. For another thing, I have always been drawn to the unabashedly intellectual, and this book has that in spades. It makes geekdom alluring, and I just love Tartt for that. I wish I were as geeky as Henry!

Ultimately, what I think I respond to most in The Secret History is the friendship aspect. The Secret History is very much a book about friendship. It's about the very human yearning to belong and be accepted by people we admire. It's about the sacrifices we make to keep friendships intact, the insecurity we feel when we think we might not be completely accepted by our friends after all, and the paranoia we experience when it seems our friends may have betrayed us. About the feeling of invincibility we get from having great friends, and the melancholy and loneliness that follow the disintegration of a once-great friendship. The book basically reads like an elegy on a great friendship, and one doesn't necessarily have to share Richard's intellectual attitude towards life, his morality or even his morbid longing for the picturesque to be able to relate to that. It's enough to have yearned for close friendship and been insecure in friendship. And let's face it, who hasn't?

I do not think The Secret History is a perfect book. As I said, I find Richard somewhat unconvincing as a male character; there is too much about him that screams 'female author' to me. Furthermore, the ending is decidedly weak, although to be fair, I have no idea how else Tartt could have finished her book. The story does seem to be inexorably heading in that particular direction. Insofar as the ending reflects the disintegration that is going on in the characters' lives, it could probably be said to be appropriate. Still, I wish Tartt could have come up with something on a par with the rest of the book. If she had, this would have been a six-star book. I don't know many of those.
Profile Image for Adina .
891 reviews3,548 followers
July 21, 2017
DNF at 70%

“If you love one book by a certain author it does not automatically mean you will enjoy all the author’s work” (Me, while reading The Secret History) .

Before I begin my review I have to inform you that Goldfinch is one of my favorite novels. If you want, you can see my short review here. Based on that fact, there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind of how much I love Donna Tartt’s writing. I thought it was perfect in the first novel I read by her, it kept me coming back for more each day, even though the plot was not overly exciting all the time. Although many reviewers are of the opinion that Goldfinch was too long I thought that it could have had 1000 pages and I would have still savored all of them.

The Secret History is a different story entirely. I will admit from the beginning that I did not find the subject too enticing when I read the blurb but, nevertheless, I was looking forward to dive into the novel because it was written by the wonderful Donna Tartt. The beautiful writing is still there, that is one of the few reasons that I made it this far. However, I have a few (read many) problems with the content and I will do my best to explain them below.

Firstly, we have the insufferable, snobbish, self-absorbed characters. I am not the kind a reader that needs to like the characters but I want them to be interesting and vivid. The six students felt the same to me, even the main character did not possess any special trait. Maybe Bunny was the only one that gave me strong feelings; it almost brought me to the point where I thought it would be a good idea to be killed. The point is, I enjoy well done villains with interior conflicts but there were none to be found here.

Secondly, there is the discrepancy between what I understood the book to be about and what it really was. The blurb states that .“Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries". Let’s begin with the first line, .“under the influence of their charismatic classic professor”. In all the 400 pages that I read I did not see the classic professor as a charismatic character. Actually, the professor was almost non-existent. We are sometimes told about him but when he actually appears in the picture he only has a few flat lines. Oh, and he smiles a lot. I was expecting the teacher and the intellectual conversation between him and the students to have an important presence in the novel, to challenge my thinking, but I was out of luck. I believe we are presented only one discussion from the class, which was essential for the plot, although I did not feel its importance when I read it. We are told about how great and eccentric this professor is but we never actually see it. I was expecting him to be some sort of a disguised devil if he manages to influence his students to commit murder but I do not see how their acts had anything to do with the professor. If anything, he was worried about them when they disappeared for a while and lost contact with them.
Going forward, to .“a group of clever, eccentric misfits”. Same problem here, we are told and not showed how smart they were. A .“living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries”. basically means expensive restaurants, a mansion in the countryside and vacation in a palace in Rome. I guess it is a typical existence for people with money, not necessarily something out of ordinary that should deserve our awe.

Their first act of “evil” felt underclimatic since, again, we are told about it, we do not actually experience it. It would have been a totally different experience to be there when it happened not to be told by it from a character after a month or so after the deed was done.

Finally, I thought there was too much flat, useless dialogue. I wish I had an example to show but I always forget to take notes, sorry.

I feel so disappointed for not liking this one but I am not losing my faith in Donna Tartt. I am sure her next book will amaze me once again.

Profile Image for Rebecca.
308 reviews170 followers
September 26, 2008
This novel, like so many other first novels, is full of everything that the author wants to show off about herself. Like a freshman who annoys everyone with her overbearing sense of importance and unfathomable potential, Donna Tartt wrote this book as though the world couldn't wait to read about all of the bottled-up personal beliefs, literary references, and colorfully apt metaphors that she had been storing up since the age of 17.

The most fundamentally unlikable thing about this book is that all of the characters -- each and every one of them -- are snobby, greedy, amoral, pretentious, melodramatic, and selfish. The six main characters are all students at a small and apparently somewhat undemanding college in Vermont, studying ancient Greek with a professor who's so stereotypically gay as to be a homosexual version of a black-face pantomime. In between bouts of translating Greek, the students end up murdering two people, and then devolve into incoherent, drunken, boring decay.

The best thing I can equate this book to is the experience of listening to someone else's dream or listening to a very drunk friend ramble on and on and on, revealing a little too much awkward personal information in the process. The climax of The Secret History's narrative was around page 200, but the book was 500 pages long. So, essentially, this book contained 300 pages of scenes where the characters do nothing but drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, go to the hospital for drinking so much alcohol and smoking so many cigarettes, get pulled over for drunk driving, talk about alcohol and cigarettes, do cocaine, and gossip about each other (while drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes).

Tartt's writing was sometimes genuinely good at establishing a thrilling and suspenseful mood, but other times, especially toward the end, her writing became the kind of self-conscious, contrived, empty prose that I can imagine someone writing just to fill out a page until a good idea comes to them, kind of like how joggers will jog in place while waiting for a traffic light. That kind of writing practice is fine...as long as the editor is smart enough to cut it before the final copy. The last 300 pages were the authorial equivalent of that kind of jogging while going nowhere, and it soured the whole book for me.

In the book's attempt to comment on the privilege, self-interest, and academic snobbery of rich college kids in New England, the book itself comes to be just as self-absorbed and obsessive as its characters -- it turns into a constant litany of unnecessary conversations, sexual tensions that go nowhere, purple prose descriptions of the landscape, contrived plot twists that fizzle out, and forced, overblown metaphors.

The confusing part was that Tartt seemed to identify with (and expect us to identify with) these students -- not to admire them for murdering people, obviously, but to respect and envy their precious contempt for everything modern and popular, as though they lived on a higher plane than normal people. The cliche of academic types being remote from the mundane world and out of touch with reality may have a grain of truth to it, but Tartt took that cliche way too far. The story is set in the early 90s, and yet some of the characters had never heard of ATMs, and they still wrote with fountain pens, drove stick shift cars, cultivated roses in their backyards, wore suits and ties to class, and said things like, "I say, old man!" Did I mention that this story is set in the early 90s? It got to the point where all the anachronisms came to seem ridiculous and gratuitous.

Ostensibly, the point of the novel was to critique the point of view that privileged academics are somehow superior to the average person, but Tartt seemed too enamored of her own characters and the endearing way they held cigarettes between their fingers to really allow that kind of critique to be successful. Maybe Tartt's second novel managed to get away from the claustrophobic selfishness of The Secret History, but I don't feel up to reading it after this.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Maggie Stiefvater.
Author 81 books168k followers
August 23, 2015
Five Things About The Secret History.

This is going to be a difficult book for me to talk about. I finished it days ago but I find myself a little verklempt, I’ll admit. It’s been a long time since a book has stuck with me so completely as this one, and I say that having had a quite remarkable year for memorable reading. So, the summary is straightforward and completely unhelpful: a Californian boy arrives at a private New England college where he falls in with a bunch of snooty but delightful Classics majors who happen to have accidentally killed someone during a Bacchian rite they just happened to be conducting in their spare time. That is a totally truthful depiction of some of the events in the book, but it is not what the book is ABOUT. I will do my best to convince you to pick it up in other ways. Without further ado, here are five things about THE SECRET HISTORY.

1. This is not a new book. All of your friends have already read it. You probably already have a copy of it, actually, that you picked up at some point in the last decade, and now it molders in a box in your master bedroom closet, the one that you never unpacked last time you moved. Right next to your college alarm clock and two boxes of 9-volt batteries and that shirt you can’t throw out because it was a gift. The reason why I’m pointing out that it’s not a new book is because, since reading it, I’ve been told by several people that it is their Favorite Book Ever. It is one thing for you to read a book six months before and maintain it as a Favorite Book. It is something more remarkable when a book can elicit a passionate response from readers twenty years after its publication.

2. This book is full of terrible people. Pretty much the lot of the people that our narrator Richard meets are awful in some way. Self-centered or elitist or potheads or sociopathic or just people with really loud voices in quiet places. Even Richard is not exactly a great guy. But the magic of this novel is that, somehow, you find these terrible people deeply sympathetic. I need to go back and reread it to understand this strange enchantment. How do I find them so charming? Why do I want them to like Richard? GIVE ME YOUR SECRETS, BOOK.

3. This is not a whodunit. You are told pretty much the Bad Thing That Happens in the prologue, and you can see it coming like a comet for much of the book. The effect of this, however, is to create a lovely, unbearable tension and anticipation. And when the moment comes — in a line that involves ferns — it is so deliciously awful. I actually exhaled gloriously and put the book down for a moment because I was so delighted by the actual pay off.

4. It’s long. It’s over 200,000 words long, I think, and 600 pages in my edition. It took me five days to read it. And it’s not just long, it’s dense. One of the blurbs on the inside of the jacket said that it read like a 19th century novel, and I don’t think that’s at all unearned. It takes its time developing atmosphere and character quirks and some of the days in the novel take dozens of pages to unfold. It is not a novel to speed through. It’s a novel to get stuck in. I put it down when I got too tired, when I felt like I was starting to skim.

5. WHAT ELSE CAN I SAY? I adore the characters so much. I adore the hint —the breath — of the supernatural. I adore the slow, building tension and the sense that I, as a reader, was being skillfully manipulated. Yes, that. That last one. I think that is what I love the most about this novel. I get the idea that Donna Tartt was completely in control of this novel. Everything is measured and deliberate and just perfectly done, and I trust her entirely. Fifty pages in, I knew that she was going to tell me a story I was going to enjoy, even if I had no idea what it was going to be.

Man, I just am going to flail about some more. Go read it.
Profile Image for jessica.
2,555 reviews35.7k followers
December 24, 2019
‘beauty is rarely soft or consolatory. quite the contrary. genuine beauty is always quite alarming.’

and oh, how alarmingly beautiful this story is, as all the best greek tragedies tend to be; full of sorrow and struggle, but often accompanied by pure loyalty and divine inspiration.

gosh. i just… i cant even right now. on the surface, this book is great. but donna tartt is an absolute goddess of writing for the sheer depth of this book. its a work of absolute brilliance.

i was never a classics student but, as someone who has taken an interest in the subject over the years, i cant even express my geeky joy for how multifaceted and layered this story is.

by exemplifying fatal flaws, dissecting the apollonian vs. dionysian philosophical theory, personalising the mask of death, understanding the action and stagnation of life, and realising the lifelong quest for the picturesque, this story is a modern greek tragedy and a classic in its own right.

wow. i will be thinking about this book for quite some time.

4.5 stars
Profile Image for chan ☆.
1,072 reviews51.5k followers
December 5, 2022
don't ask me why but i think that if this book were turned into a movie and its name was changed to fit the subject matter it'd run into copyright issues cause... it'd be A Goofy Movie.

this shit was goofy. like a legitimate laugh. no idea what the purpose of this book was beyond a really weak commentary on academia and privilege. i certainly didn't hate it but... what was the damn point.

did hate the narration though. you mean to tell me that a middle aged woman from mississippi needed to lend her voice to a californian boy in new england? um. girl, let's leave it to the voice actors.
Profile Image for chai ♡.
322 reviews156k followers
February 2, 2023
[Flings myself onto a chaise lounge with a dramatic wail] I think the real tragedy here is that I’m not part of a secretive circle of young self-styled scholars who quote Classics over dirty Martinis, toast to living forever, and commit various acts of evil when they get too consumed by their Greek homework.
Profile Image for ❀ annie ❀.
104 reviews214 followers
February 24, 2022
achingly pretentious. insufferably wordy. and probably one of the best books i've ever read. i don't think i've ever wished a 600+ page book was even longer.
Profile Image for ale ‧ ₊˚୨ ♡ ୧ ₊˚.
412 reviews2,148 followers
April 27, 2023
edit: lowering my rate to 1 star because let's face it: this was awful, and boring as fuck. please, shut the fuck up.

It took me 4 months to finish this book and mostly it was because I was dealing with uni and having several mental breakdowns. Also, the second part of this book was boring as fuck.

My review might contain some spoilers!

This was a hell of a ride. I don't even know where to begin, but let's try.

I've seen a lot of hype for The Secret History everywhere. So, why not give it a try? Plus, it seems cool and the aesthetic is interesting.

The first 100 pages, I must admit, were boring. It was really hard for me to get through. I blame uni and the fact that nothing interesting was going on at the moment. The fact that the climax happened around the page 200 or so and then nothing happened pissed me off. And then... That was it. Nothing. Zero. Nada, maldita sea.

The only characters that I really liked died, they were Henry... and Bunny. Yes. The annoying bitch who couldn't keep his mouth shut and the only one who really reacted to a murder. Yeah, I agree that he was annoying and was a complete asshole, but was one of the only two who really had personality.

The writing was mid... Until it wasn't anymore. The last 150 pages were like Tartt was writing just for the sake of it. Some things were okay, but gods, I was getting sick of those kids getting drunk, smoking like fucking chimneys and getting high. And the consecuences of it: ending up in the hospital or thinking they were going to die. I wish I had been drunk while reading this.

I know I shouldn't have, but I laughed way too hard when Henry killed himself. It was so random and so funny. He tried to play the hero card and for what? Honestly, his death wasn't something memorable for me. I mean, yeah, he wasn't pretty bad and I was laughing my ass off when Richard realized that Henry had only told him what he wanted to and not the entire truth, like, how can you be so idiot, Richard? I still can't believe that Donna Tartt decided to put Richard as the mc, or even imagined him at all... This mf was boring as hell.

For some reason, her characters are bland, have no personality and are really annoying. Yes, even more than that bitch of Bunny.

Anyways, I'm not sorry for rating this book with 0.5 stars. If I could, I would give it 0 stars. But, yes, save yourself.
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,219 reviews9,919 followers
December 4, 2013
Apparently the New York Times described The Secret History as "Powerful...Enthralling...A ferociously well-paced entertainment" and Time said "A smart, craftsman-like, viscerally compelling novel."

Very funny, guys, ha ha and all that. They're such jolly jokesters. They'll have you believing anything. The Secret History is complete tripe - no, that's harsh, let me put it another way - it's COMPLETE TRIPE - oh dear, this keyboard has a mind of its own! and is very firm about its opinions too! - but this book is also the literary equivalent of novocaine and it's just so cozy.


Oooh Donna. Just another bowl of bananas and custard and a whopping plateful of classical references and allusions; and a murder. And ladle on all the upper class schmooze for us. You knowwwwww what I like! Tickle my tootsies and call me something Latin...ooooh.

This book puts you in the kind of trance where you don't mind that The Secret History is mercilessly ripped off from Brideshead Revisited. Well, I didn't mind at all because I hadn't read Brideshead Revisited then, which I suspect most of young Donna's readers hadn't either and I further suspect the reviewers of The New York Times and Time hadn't. Or they'd have run her out of town on a rail, if that still happens (I haven't seen it done for years). Oh Donna, oh Donna how does that old song go?

I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me.

Three stars though! Sometimes it's fun to be fooled.
Profile Image for anika.
52 reviews41 followers
August 6, 2021
i absolutely hated this. five stars
Profile Image for Barry Pierce.
576 reviews7,767 followers
August 9, 2018
Due to my utter adoration for The Goldfinch I decided, for reasons unbeknownst to even myself, that I should give The Secret History another go. See I read it maybe four years ago, I want to say, and I wasn’t the biggest fan. And ever since then I’ve had people constantly telling me just how wrong I was about The Secret History. ‘No, no, it’s a modern classic!’ they’d say to me. Or, ‘wow it seems exactly like the type of book you’d adore.’ And they’re right, it is exactly the type of book I’d adore. So why can I not bring myself around to loving it?

The Secret History is very much a tale of two novels, the split between them coming when Bunny dies. And that isn’t a spoiler, we’re told in the first line that Bunny dies. The first book being the lead up and the second book being the aftermath, with the group just trying to deal with the fact that they actually killed Bunny. Once again, not a spoiler, we’re told on the first page that the group kill Bunny. And if you don’t like even the first pages of novels being spoiled then I suggest you should go outside more often.

Side note: it’s rather depressing to read this novel when you’re the same age as the characters. I felt so under-read. But then I remembered they’re all fictional, so fuck them.

The first book is actually quite good. It’s all wonderfully tense as the reader is just waiting for the murder to happen. The inverted murder mystery, which oftentimes does not work, works fantastically here and you wouldn’t be talked over if you referred to The Secret History as perhaps the best example of the whydunit genre.

Then my biggest problem with the novel happens: the entire second half. What a fucking slog. Like, jesus. Okay Donna just because you’re writing about a funeral doesn’t mean that the novel itself has to become funereal. The whole book just becomes ‘oh aren’t we really sad!’ and ‘ugh it’s tough being murderers!’ And I think, tell me if I’m wrong here, I think Tartt expects us to sympathise with these fucking monsters. I mean, I’ve sympathised with murderers before. I think Aileen Wuornos had a fairly sound motive. The Unabomber made some good points. But this ragtag group of Enid Blyton rejects? Nah. Not a chance.

So what do I think of The Secret History the second time around? Much the same as the first time really. I did enjoy some parts more, especially the first half. I’ll be kind, I’ll bump my star rating up one. Congrats Donna, I now think your first novel is perfectly average! I’m happy for us both.

Oh, and isn’t Judy Poovey just the greatest name of a fictional character in the history of Western literature? Judy Poovey. I want to get to know you.
Profile Image for Zweegas.
204 reviews18 followers
April 1, 2009
Okay, so let me see if I understand what's going on in this book: These college kids accidentally murder someone while participating in some ancient ritual which involves some form of alternate consciousness. Then, they're shockingly ho-hum about the entire thing because after all it was just some random farmhand or something who just accidentally happened to be around. They never ever discuss this murder. They don't even really feel bad about it until someone threatens to expose them. Plus, instead of ever discussing the potentially interesting details of their ritual, the book instead chooses to focus on the most boring aspects of the aftermath. There's an entire chapter devoted to a road trip which really needs to be cut out and replaced with: "Yeah, so, we all went to Bunny's funeral. His family was pretty much what we expected."

There's a division between the first half of this book and the second half. I was really drawn in to the first half but as soon as the second half begins, it all goes downhill right until the ending which is the worst part of the whole stupid thing. I hate it when books do that.

(My reading group's November / December 2006 book selection.)
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for walkingtragedy.
99 reviews54 followers
October 10, 2022
to be honest if i wanted the thoughts of a bunch of classist elitists who know dead classic languages I’d just have dinner with my family
Profile Image for ELLIAS (elliasreads).
489 reviews39k followers
November 5, 2020

That should have been the title of this book, how each of the titular character views beauty.....and the unholy terror that comes from it. 

Spoiler Discussion Live show here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PSNew...

Imagine if someone took a simple generic thriller mystery plot but added Latin phrases, subtle Greek history and references, a study of philosophy and logic, and unlikeable, privileged, and pretentious college students— you get this dense, ironic, well crafted, and brain killing book. 

This book gave me a fucking headache.

I want to reread it. Someday. But not anytime soon. It was so sad. And fucking depressing. 

The conversations were sooo interesting to me. It’s was like having conversations I would never have with someone in the first place. Stronger in the sense that writing was SOOOO FUCKING GOOD!!!! The fact that she writes in way where its easy to articulate and understand that I wouldn’t be able to in an actual real life conversation is astounding to me. I couldn’t even tell it was taking place in the 80s; a true classic, still living up and strong to this day— timeless. 

I liked this book. And then I really hated it. Bunny can go die. Well he did. And I don’t condone murder but this book made me feel so conflicted overall. It’s passionate, considerate, pretentious, arrogant, and somewhat chaotic read. Also very cold and lifeless— not in a bad way per se. Richard is honestly a really boring character, nothing that makes him stand out BUT the ordeal he went through and his need to belong gives him that edge that makes me give a second look. 

I can definitely see why people have a love/hate relationship this book. It was really distinct outlook on character relationships- driven and heavy. Pretentious and tedious. Reminded me of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and a little of Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo. 

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Profile Image for persephone ☾.
509 reviews2,435 followers
August 5, 2021
physically i'm here, but mentally i'm part of a pretentious elitist friend group in Vermont, studying Latin and Greek, having a bacchanal once a month and reciting poetry under my breath
Profile Image for ✨ A ✨ .
432 reviews1,793 followers
September 20, 2021
I don't know about you, but what I strive for is finding my next great read. They're not always perfect. Sometimes they have messed up shit in them, BUT they leave me dumbfounded and in awe. Days after I find myself doing something completely mundane and unable to stop thinking about the story and the characters. That's what The Secret History did to me.

I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.

The Secret History follows Richard Papen as he transfers from California to Hampden College in New England. He joins a small elite group who study Greek and are obsessed with the classics—taught by an eccentric and mysterious professor who teaches them a different way of thinking.

“Everything was going beautifully, on the brink of taking wing, and I had a feeling that I'd never had, that reality itself was transforming around us in some beautiful and dangerous fashion, that we were being driven by a force we didn't understand, towards an end I did not know.”

Richard recounts the events that lead up to the murder of one of his classmates and all that happens after.

Never, never once in any immediate sense, did it occur to me that any of this was anything but a game. An air of unreality suffused even the most workaday details, as if we were plotting not the death of a friend but the itinerary of a fabulous trip that I, for one, never quite believed we'd ever really take.

My thoughts:

When I saw that my copy was over 600 pages (super thin and flimsy might I add, I almost tore them by mistake like a dozen times) I was a tiny bit daunted. The only genre in which I'm used to reading such big books is fantasy. But I quickly fell in love with the writing which was both beautiful and lyrical and was, despite my initial assumptions, actually quite accessible.

This book was told in the first person but in past tense. It reminded me a lot of The Great Gatsby and the way that book was narrated.

The plot was slow, full of rich detail and atmospheric.

A lot of parts (especially in the beginning now that I think on it) were not relevant or necessary to the story but I think I loved it more because of the attention to detail and the way Richard talks about comepletey normal, every day things he did.

The setting and characters were so well fleshed out, it allowed me to connect to the story despite how problematic the characters were.

In a certain sense, this was why I felt so close to the others in the Greek class. They, too, knew this beautiful and harrowing landscape, centuries dead; they'd had the same experience of looking up from their books with fifth-century eyes and finding the world disconcertingly sluggish and alien, as if it were not their home.

I'm not going to lie— all the characters were terrible people. But I couldn't help sympathising with them at times.

From the first page we are told about the murder this group of friends commit. This is not a happy story, it is a story about murder and the consequences that they have to face, a stain on their souls they have to bear.

But while I have never considered myself a very good person, neither can I bring myself to believe that I am a spectacularly bad one. Perhaps it's simply impossible to think of oneself in such a way, our Texan friend being a case in point. What we did was terrible, but still I don't think any of us were bad, exactly; chalk it up to weakness on my part, hubris on Henry's, too much Greek prose composition – whatever you like.

There were times I felt sad and empathised with them and other times I felt utterly disgusted. Donna Tartt does not shy away from harsh truths.

This book is filled with jaw dropping plot twists and situations that had me crying, and gasping out loud.

I read this book in autumn, sometimes under a tree with a gentle breeze in the fall sunlight and sometimes snuggled in bed with copious cups of coffee to keep me reading through the night.

I 10/10 recommend reading it this way. It is not a book for devouring in one sitting, but rather a book slowly savoured.

I know this review is probably inadequate and does not fully capture my thoughts, but it is the best I can do right now.

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.

Buddy read with my fav Türkan
Initial reaction:

And as I'm sitting on my wingbacked chair, I take a sip of my (now cold) black coffee. I turn the last page. I am a tumult of emotions. To name a few: shock, sadness, and awe.

...Okay I lie. I don't drink black coffee. What the hell is that devil juice

Wow. That was really good. I mean, there was some really messed up shit in this book but it was still so brilliantly written and addictive. I don't know how I'm going to review this!
Profile Image for Baba.
3,620 reviews988 followers
August 26, 2021
A truly modern classic masterpiece - Tartt's first offering as a writer is this juggernaut - a descent into evil, unreliably narrated by the newest addition to a group of highly eccentric elitist misfits, who form a group around a just as eccentric classics professor at a small liberal arts college in Vermont. Within this microcosm, they are creating their own norms and in time, their own morality, which leads to a descent to evil.

A masterclass in scene setting and character development from a first person narrator's perspective; in beautifully paced suspense building; and in creating an atmosphere and plot that aptly illustrates the general complexity and confusion of relationships. The well drawn out character development by Tartt, brings the group to life, despite the at first glance, limited view of the narrator. One of those books you can read again and again, and again... and still be completely drawn in by the suspense and the mystery of it all.

Tart announces her talent to the world! 10 out of 12.
Profile Image for Jim Fonseca.
1,102 reviews7,205 followers
September 6, 2023
Six students at an eastern Ivy League college latch on to an elderly professor of Greek. They create a Greek 'cult' that leads to murder and, in all, the death of three people.


The story is told from the point of view of the outsider in the group: he’s the only kid from the west coast and the only one on financial aid.

All the misfit characters come alive, each with his (and one her) personality. The story is told methodically, step by step, and you start to feel 'this could have really happened.'

A great book, just a bit longer than necessary.


The author was born in 1963 and grew up in Mississippi. She has written two best-selling novels, The Secret History (4.2 on GR) and The Goldfinch (3.9), both with more than a half-million ratings on GR. The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer prize in 2014 and was made into a movie.

Photo from greekboston.com
The author from john-adams.nl

[Edited, author info and picture added 9/6/23]

Profile Image for emily.
255 reviews2,198 followers
March 17, 2020
thank god i’m in self isolation right now because i feel like i need at least 2838373 decades to recover from this book. what, in all due respect, THE FUCK???
Profile Image for Candi.
623 reviews4,718 followers
November 22, 2019
"Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs."

Hot damn this book was brilliant! I’m officially joining the ranks of Donna Tartt fans. Three things happened after I finished this book: 1) I wanted to start all over again 2) I had difficulty reading the books I chose next (even though they are excellent in their own right) 3) I couldn’t figure out how the hell to write this review! I’ve actually been afraid to read Tartt. I mean, what if I didn’t love her like everyone else? How was I going to explain that?! And now I can’t seem to coherently express why I admired her writing so much in this book.

I’ll start perhaps with that quote above and that "morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs." I can totally relate to that. Perhaps not "at all costs", however. Richard, a middle-class Californian and the narrator of The Secret History, thirsts for the intellectual and glamorous life. More importantly, he’s searching for a place to belong; he yearns for what he believes to be ‘his people.’ Sounds familiar, right? And perhaps a bit clichéd? Well, there’s certainly nothing ordinary about this story. It’s intelligently crafted, and the reader is drawn right into the book alongside Richard. I can’t say I liked Richard, but for 500+ pages, I lived outside of my little world and smack dab in the middle of Richard’s. The setting is perfect and beautifully described – a small liberal arts college in rural Vermont.

"Even now I remember those pictures, like pictures in a storybook one loved as a child. Radiant meadows, mountains vaporous in the trembling distance; leaves ankle-deep on a gusty autumn road; bonfires and fog in the valleys; cellos, dark windowpanes, snow."

Then there are the characters! Richard somehow manages to edge into the small, exclusive Greek classics program run by the very enigmatic professor, Julian. The classics students, Richard included, see him definitely as a father-like figure, something each seemed to be lacking in their personal lives; but furthermore, he was nearly a god-like personage in their eyes. Richard is immediately attracted to this eccentric yet alluring group - Henry, Francis, Bunny, and the twins, Camilla and Charles.

"… different as they all were they shared a certain coolness, a cruel, mannered charm which was not modern in the least but had a strange cold breath of the ancient world: they were magnificent creatures, such eyes, such hands, such looks—sic oculos, sic ille manus, sic ora ferehat."

What do you do when you feel disillusioned and bored with your daily life? What happens when you are under the spell of a charismatic nature like Julian’s? Naturally, the group is easily swayed by his words. Even after finishing the last page of this novel, I still ask the question to what extent was Julian responsible, either directly or indirectly, for the actions of these students.

"Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely?"

I won’t get into the rest of the plot. We are told from the very beginning that there is a murder and that this group is responsible. But this is not an ordinary whodunit, as we know this fact from page one. It’s all about the thrilling suspense leading up to the event as well as the gripping psychological tension. The claustrophobic feeling held me in its tight embrace throughout the second half or last third of the novel. There are certainly overtones of Crime and Punishment within. It also brought to mind the feeling I had while reading The Talented Mr. Ripley. How could I actually find myself siding with the villain(s)? There was such a feeling of intimacy that Tartt created between the reader and Richard in this book, much like Highsmith did between the reader and Tom Ripley in her book. It’s ingenious!

The Secret History is one of my favorite reads of the year, and will also sit on my favorites of all time shelf. It’s a literary thriller at its finest. As I was reading this on my kindle, I didn’t actually pay attention to the number of pages before I started. When I finished, I couldn’t believe this was actually 500+ pages. I could have read more! I had been about to start reading The Goldfinch, but I have to thank my friend Pedro who convinced me that this one should be first. I’m certain this would have deserved 5 stars regardless of the order of reading, but I’m fully confident that his advice was wise! Now I can’t wait to continue my Tartt adventures.

"I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell."
Profile Image for Joe Hill.
16 reviews32 followers
October 23, 2007
Someone just brought up Nietzsche’s Apollonian vs. Dionysian theory, which is described at the link below, if you are as unfamiliar as I was. http://www.geocities.com/danielmacrya...

Apparently Donna Tartt was well-versed in this theme, as it is prevalent in The Secret History. The gist of Nietzsche’s theory is that the ancient Greeks attained such a high level of culture mainly due to their personal struggle between the opposing philosophies of Apollo and Dionysus; Apollo being the god of art, and thus, stagnation, while Dionysus is the god of debauchery and barbarism, and thus, action. This struggle between appreciation for art and culture and a zeal for living is what Nietzsche credits for the Greeks impressive progress. He also believed that the only way we can progress today is to swing the pendulum toward Dionysus.

I see Tartt’s Greek professor character as Apollonian—beautiful and seemingly wise, but in the end, shallow, and useless in times of tragedy. His students loved him, but they (or Henry, at least) realized the inherent stagnation in pouring over ancient texts and art--they needed a Dionysian push to move them forward to real progress. This is a rather obvious observation, I think it is even spelled out by the Henry character in the novel. However, the basis for Nietzsche’s theory, which I’m now sure Tartt was aware of, is that the basic will of humans is not to simply survive, but to survive at a level superior to that of your peers. Knowing this adds new colors to the tableau Tartt weaved for us, a story that is ultimately about class struggle (ala Philip Roth, hence, the faux-snubb reference). I think it tells us how carefully Tartt chose her vehicle for this story and reveals a little more of her brilliance.
Profile Image for Sam.
142 reviews339 followers
June 19, 2017
I understand why The Secret History is loathed as much as it is loved. If I remove myself a bit from what I just read, I note implausible dialogue and somewhat unbelievable plot elements, horrifically selfish and nasty main characters, overflowing with evil, sure, but mostly with ennui and snobbery and drunkenness and poor-little-rich-people and an air of erudition that's more smokescreen than substance.

I can admit to all of that objectively. Subjectively, I feverishly read this in a day and found it literally unputdownable, obscuring my copy under my desk to finish the last 50 pages at work. I can't tell if I suspended my disbelief, or fully believed and drank the Kool-Aid, or some combination of both. All I can say is that this book seized hold of me and refused to let go, lured me and seduced me with Tartt's picturesque, poetic language and description, the sustained tension and ominous mood, and the intricacies of the dark, feral, brutal natures and impulses that lurk underneath beautiful, polished surfaces. I was compelled to savor the details, but also desperate to turn the pages and read more. I was by turns irritated, disgusted, sympathetic, contemplative of the relationships and actions and reactions of Henry, Bunny, Francis, Charles and Camilla, and though I wouldn't say any rank among the more memorable characters I've read, they ended up being as magnetic as Richard the narrator first found them to be, even if in the end I was repelled by them rather than attracted. I could not look away, I was completely captured and in their and Tartt's spell. And I came to satisfied and unsettled by my satisfaction, as though I shouldn't have liked or enjoyed or been so captivated by such a tale.

This book is wicked. I can see how wicked can mean evil/unpleasant, or a New England style excellent for this read, and completely understand its polarizing nature. If you haven't read The Secret History yet and are debating about it, I'd recommend trying it if you're a fan of dense literary novels and don't always need a moral paragon to root for. And if you do decide to pick it up, I can only urge to try as hard as you can to suspend your disbelief and get caught in the web... I can't tell if I devoured it or it devoured me, or both, but either way I loved this wicked book. 4.5 stars rounded up to 5 stars, with a future re-read all but guaranteed.
Profile Image for Mwanamali.
377 reviews290 followers
September 29, 2023
Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw’, that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.
For Richard, this starts after he moves from Plano, California to Hampden College. Even the name had an austere Anglican cadence, to my ear at least, which yearned hopelessly for England and was dead to the sweet dark rhythms of the little mission towns. There he meets Greek students Henry, Francis, the twins: Charles and Camilla, and Bunny. Or as their Classics instructor, budding cult leader, Julian describes them:
genis gratus, corpore glabellus, arte multiscius, et fortuna opulentus-- smooth-cheeked, soft-skinned, well-educated, and rich.
This is a character driven book and has one of the most vibrant examinations of the human condition I’ve ever come across. Most notable, for me at least is Henry. Part Sherlock Holmes, part Regina George… he was remarkable, evocative, admirable and the kind of man I’d need to microdose on should I want to enjoy him recreationally. A lot of the muslin-thin plot is driven by Henry’s decision making (yes, Richard is a one-note observer of the life and times of these notorious five but he’s still a stout narrator).

I fell in love with Henry when he was asked how he could so casually justify premeditated murder.
“But how,” said Charles, who was close to tears, “how can you possibly justify cold-blooded murder?”
Henry lit a cigarette, “I prefer to think of it,” he had said, “as redistribution of matter.”
This story gains its wheels once Richard gains entry into the core friendship. As the modern day narrator Richard is recollecting these tragic events that occurred while he was at college, he tells us:
“It is easy to see things in retrospect, but I was ignorant then of everything but my own happiness, and I don’t know what else to say except that life itself seemed very magical in those days: a web of symbol, coincidence, premonition, omen. Everything, somehow, fit together, some sly and benevolent Providence was revealing itself by degrees and I felt myself trembling on the brink of a fabulous discovery…”
I was so hooked and eager to see what they would do. Even if it was just accompanying them in their day-to-day life. Even their classes were fun to sit in on. Their comparisons of Roman and Greek philosophies, their vague romanticizing of Bacchanalia,
“Beauty is terror. We want to be devoured by it, to hide ourselves in that fire which refines us.”
But perhaps this book’s greatest strength is how remarkably easy it is to read. I went in expecting dense prose and drowning by vocabulary but apart from the odd word or turn of Latin phrase, this book was easy to devour. It was also very descriptive. Tartt has a way with words that is both immersive and ambient. Not only was I right there in the room with Richard as he shared with me his story, I could feel what every character on page was feeling. Tartt’s prose leaves a lot for the reader to infer and there’s nothing I love more than an author who can trust their audience.

The most vivid thing for me was how what Richard found so beautiful in the beginning unearths itself to be rotten to the core. In his inadvertent journey of self-discovery after all the unpleasant things they do (like a naked forest ritual to invoke Dionysus that results in tragedy), Richard watches as this facade slowly unravels itself. His esteemed friends are a highly flawed lot. Even the bombastic sybarite Bunny who was at first fun turned out to be bigoted and with an annoying habit of leaving his friends with an inflated bill.

This is a story about a man who got himself caught up in a world he couldn’t escape. (I wouldn't want to either. Who doesn't want wealthy friends with country estates where we can indulge in creative drug use, gourmet coffee, and have civil discussions about the validity of Plato's definition of justice). But even after his golden friends lost their glitter, Richard saw the futility of getting out.
Without warning I had a vision of Francis- twenty years later, fifty years, in a wheelchair. And of myself- older, too, sitting around with him in some smokey room, the two of us repeating this exchange for the thousandth time. At one time I had liked the idea, that the act, at least, had bound us together, we were not ordinary friends, but friends till-death-do-us-part. This thought had been my only comfort in the aftermath… Now it made me sick, knowing there was no way out. I was stuck with them, with all of them, for good.
This is a book that will stay with me for years. Often, when I was revisiting my notes I would find myself rereading and would have to stop myself because other books exist that deserve to be read. A whydunnit tale, about a group of students who cause death and destruction in their pursuit to see god but still have to worry about their Greek homework is one of the greatest books I've ever read.

Consummatum est.
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