The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Tartt has only produced three works & has become somewhat of an infamous literary icon over the years. I’ve heard about her through stuff I’ve read about Brett Easton Ellis (she went to school with him & was a part of a sort of literary brat pack, even dedicated the book in part to him), but never read any of her books until now.

This book has been around since the early nineties, before I was even born. It is favored by many, many people.Tartt describes the book as “like a water pipe with weak spots, & it’ll kind of explode in different places. But it’s very controlled.” I first heard about it when scrolling through a list of top books people should read in their twenties, or before they graduate college, or something. It hit another little surge of popularity when Tartt’s newest book was released, The Goldfinch. In fact, one of the characters (my favorite) even makes a quick two line appearance in her latest novel, which of course I ordered a copy of before I even finished this one.

The Secret History is narrated by a relatable, easily influenced, nineteen year old named Richard. Think a 1980s Nick Carraway. Sick of his life & poor family in California, he gains acceptance to this uppity, rich kids college in Vermont & becomes fascinated with a group of students, who study the Greek & Latin classics under the tutelage of a professor they refer to as Julian. Julian is an eccentric character himself, who begins each lesson by saying, “I hope we’re all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime?”

Henry is the young genius, Sherlockian type, sometimes seemingly without emotion. Bunny, or Edmund, is that pretentious douche who probably spends too much time practicing his handshakes & tries to call upon Gatsby, by calling everybody “old sport,” but is really just a bigot & an idiot. Francis is the cool, rich, redhead & by far my favorite as most of his lines are the funniest in the novel. The twins, Camilla & Charles are mysterious & strikingly gorgeous. Camilla being a big romantic interest for almost everyone & Charles gaining more relevance in the second half of the novel.

Eventually Richard is accepted into this group as well, though he lies about his financial status & past life in California. It’s okay, because this group of kids has plenty of twisted secrets of their own. The biggest one happens halfway through the novel, but it’s mentioned in the prologue before the book even starts. They murdered Bunny.

Tartt does this strategically, evoking her Jacobean style favorites. Instead of the novel becoming some cheap mystery, it becomes a nerve-racking psychological tale of why’s & how’s. I was amazed at her ability to slowly progress toward this murder in a way that made sense. I found myself completely understanding the character’s motives despite the motives being paper thing & almost laughable.

The book has suffered criticism from some who say the characters are too one dimensional, but the characters were what made this story for me. They are hysterical. For example, one of the main reasons they don’t go to the police after a murder is because they assume the jury will hate them because they’re snobby, white, rich kids. Which they absolutely are, but it’s great the way they’re rendered.

These are kids who frequent a Victorian style house in the country each weekend & spend their time drinking & making witty remarks in Greek & Latin. The rest of the school thinks they either worship the devil, or are a bunch of nuts, which again, they probably are. They’re outsiders that have turned into a “we’re far more superior than you” clan. OG hipsters. The second best thing about this book is that Richard gets completely sucked in by this. He’s just as much one of them despite his lack of financial income. The best thing about this book is it sucks you in as well. It had me looking up Latin & wishing I enjoyed eating quirky foods, like cream cheese & marmalade.

I don’t want to spoil too much about Bunny’s murder or the secrets that are revealed along with it, but I’ve been dying to talk about this book with somebody, so if you have read it, please comment & maybe we can have a separate conversation away from this spoiler-free review. We can discuss metahemeralism & all of its ironic & pastoral elements.

I think people love this book regardless if they’re fifteen or fifty years old because it doesn’t really have a targeted age group. It reminded me a bit of Infinite Jest in that respect. It’s been referred to as a YA boarding school trope posing as an adult mystery novel, but I think that’s just because Tartt began writing this while she was still in school at Bennington, a college very similar to the one described in her story. So naturally, it’s able to capture college life exceedingly well as well as have the arc & style of an adult novel. The Secret History tag on tumblr is populated with teenage girls editing stark photos of bloody deer & pretty white boys with quaffed hair. But head over to Goodreads & adults are going gaga over it. Even Maggie Stiefvater, the author of the Raven Cycle Series, is obsessed.

This book isn’t perfect, but it’s definitely been added to my top favorites. I’ll never be able to give it the review it deserves because it’s impossible to describe the allure you escape into while reading it. Tartt is an amazing writer, possibly magical, possibly a Slytherin because look at this photo of her & tell me that’s not the most Slytherin thing you’ve ever seen?


I can’t wait to read The Goldfinch & jump on the Tartt cult bandwagon. 

There’s normally some pretty good literary playlists out there, but I fell in love with this one. As usual, I’ve made my own & will add to it over the next week or so.

“For if the modern mind is whimsical and discursive, the classical mind is narrow, unhesitating, relentless. It is not a quality of intelligence that one encounters frequently these days. But though I can digress with the best of them, I am nothing in my soul if not obsessive. ”

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

“And if beauty is terror,” said Julian, “then what is desire? We think we have many desires, but in fact we have only one. What is it?”

“To live,” said Camilla.

“To live forever,” said Bunny, chin cupped in palm.

The teakettle began to whistle.

7 thoughts on “The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  1. I’m looking forward to reading Goldfinch now too – The Secret History was such a great read. I’m glad you enjoyed the revelations as much as i did – they were ridiculously captivating – certainly a very memorable read.

    Liked by 1 person

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