The Secret History – Donna Tartt

The Secret History - Donna Tartt Penguin, 1992

The Secret History – Donna Tartt
Penguin, 1992

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History was one of those books that I had heard a lot about. After reading Tartt’s latest novel, The Goldfinch, I immediately knew that I wanted to read the rest of her work, and The Secret History was the most recommended. I had planned to wait a while as Tartt doesn’t publish that often, but I couldn’t resist.

As much as I knew I wanted to read The Secret History, I realised I knew very little about its plot. The novel centres on a group of elite, intelligent and eccentric Classics students under the tuition of their enigmatic and charismatic professor. After watching from afar, the book’s narrator, Richard, becomes a part of this group and from there we watch their lives change profoundly as they go beyond the bounds of normal morality.

I was so engrossed in the story that I didn’t take any notes and was unsure if I’d even write a review because I wasn’t sure I could articulate why I liked this book so much. I’ll try my best.

I was drawn into the group like Richard was, almost mesmerised by them and their ways, intrigued and wanting to know more about them but uneasy and a little frightened when that wish was granted. Each of the characters that appear in The Secret History are believably drawn, especially the group. However, I feel like, even after 627 pages, I don’t intimately know each member. And this isn’t a criticism of the book or Tartt’s writing – in fact it’s probably a testament to it that despite feeling I don’t know the characters, my enjoyment wasn’t affected in the slightest. Tartt held my interest with these characters, pulling me in with their intrigue and feeding my curiosity with glimpses of them. Sometimes I felt I knew them, then I’d see I was wrong. And in this way, readers are exactly like Richard. From the moment he sees this group of people across campus, he is fascinated by them, he wants to know them, he wants to be recognised or acknowledged by them. And, even when he becomes one of the group, does he ever really know them at all?

I don’t think this book would have the same impact if Richard hadn’t been the narrator. If it had been from a group member such as Camilla or Henry’s perspective for example, we would have known too much. As I mentioned before, I think it’s the intrigue and mystery which contributes to making this book so compelling and engrossing. At first I felt as if there were similarities between Richard in The Secret History and Theo in The Goldfinch. Perhaps it was nothing more than the fact that they were both written by the same author. But as the book took hold, many similarities were quickly forgotten.

The novel provokes a very interesting discussion on morality, both in terms of the characters’ and where you stand as a reader, too. Whose side are you on? Are you on anybody’s side? I found that the characters I liked shifted and changed as the book went on and events unfolded, and in the end, I’m don’t think I like any of them at all.

Tartt’s writing style is, like in The Goldfinch, excellent. She describes things in such an interesting and original way which is a pleasure to read. The pace of the novel is great, too. Everything from the slow introduction of the group to the gradual acceptance of Richard as one of them, to the quickening pace while the book’s dramatic events take place is incredibly well done.

I’m so glad I was recommended this book and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone either. The Secret History is a compelling and mysterious novel; a book that draws you in and holds you under its spell. A little like the group it centres on.

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13 thoughts on “The Secret History – Donna Tartt

  1. I was also a Donna Tartt virgin until I read The Goldfinch for book group last year. Every person loved it and it provoked great discussion. I can’t wait to read this one. Particularly since it’s still considered her best. Woo hoo.

  2. I’ve been wanting to read some Donna Tartt for a long time now, especially The Secret History. I’m glad you liked it, and your review has definitely made it jump up a few places on my to read list 🙂

  3. You’ve had the same experience of Tartt as me, I read The Secret History after The Goldfinch and was just blown away. I didn’t think I could be more impressed with her after The Goldfinch, but I really was. I recommend The Little Friend as well. It’s different, and not as mesmerising as The Secret History, but I loved it.

    • The Little Friend is next on my list, although I will try and wait a while before I read it as it’s the last one of hers I’ve got left on there! Glad to hear you loved it

  4. Oddly enough, The Secret History is the only Donna Tartt novel I’ve read so far. It was THE book in its day, everybody seemed to be reading it at the time. I enjoyed it, but she does seem to hold the reader at a distance from the characters – there’s something elusive and unknowable about them.

    • I’d completely agree and, in this book, it works – I think the intrigue is integral to the book in some ways. I’d recommend The Goldfinch if you’re looking to read another of Tartt’s novels (I haven’t read The Little Friend, but it’s on my list!) 🙂

  5. Like Jacqui it’s the only one I’ve read. I recall being impressed by it as you are, but somehow I’ve never been tempted by her others where usually if I like one book by an author I seek out their other titles. The Goldfinch sounded a bit flabby to me, which I don’t recall this being.

    I think the distancing works well here because it provokes that fascination and identity with Richard you talk about. I agree with any other character’s viewpoint the book wouldn’t be anything like the same. That’s the thing with plots, they give characters something to do but it’s the characters and writing that make it worth reading.

    • I would recommend The Goldfinch if you are tempted by any of her other books, but if I had to choose, I’d say I probably preferred The Secret History.

      I completely agree with your last point, Max. I always seem to prefer character-driven novels to plot-driven ones.

  6. Pingback: A year in books: 2015 | The Perfectionist Pen

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