The Secret History by Donna Tartt: A Review
“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.”
Wanting more from life than his dusty hometown of Plano, California, 20-year old Richard Papen applies to the elite Hampden College on a whim. To his utter surprise, he gets in. Richard is transported across the country to a world of crisp fall air, ivy-covered stone walls, and privileged, drug-addled students.
Yearning to be one of the sophisticated and aloof Ancient Greek students he meets in the library, he joins the sleepy Vermont college’s exclusive Classics Department, dropping all his other classes without hesitation. Richard is far too eager to join the class of five, headed by their peculiar and captivating teacher Julian, only to be swept up in a dark whirlwind of Ancient Greek compositions, wild pagan rituals, and murder.
“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”
“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.” Pulitzer Prize winner Donna Tartt opens her first novel with the murder of a boy by his own friends, setting the tone for what promises to be a wild ride filled with secrets, madness, and betrayal.
At first glance, the murdered boy in question, the rumpled Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran, fits right in with his blazer-wearing, eccentric friends. Richard, ever the financial aid receiving misfit, constructs a dazzling lie of emotionally unavailable Hollywood parents and swimming pools in order to blend in with the wealthy, cold, and brilliant Henry; red-haired, trust fund baby Francis; golden twins Camilla and Charles; and the all-American, WASP-y Bunny.
The murder of Bunny looms large over the reader as we witness Bunny’s lunches with Richard and trips to Italy with Henry, begging the question: why do they kill him? The chummy veneer begins to crack as Bunny’s sanity disintegrates, threatening to expose buried secrets that will ruin the lives of the other pupils.
Tartt starts the novel strong, with an alluring promise of suspense. The novel is split into two sections: Book I, dealing with the events leading up to Bunny’s death, and Book II, dealing with the aftermath.
I was absolutely captivated by Book I—I loved how she reveals Bunny’s murder within the first few lines, adding a sinister layer of tension to every interaction the characters have with one another. Tartt is a master of wordcraft, and some of the imagery she used just blew me away:
“On my first night there, I sat on the bed during the twilight while the walls went slowly from gray to gold to black, listening to a soprano’s voice climb dizzily up and down somewhere at the other end of the hall until at last the light was completely gone, and the faraway soprano spiraled on and on in the darkness like some angel of death, and I can’t remember the air ever seeming as high and cold and rarefied as it was that night, or ever feeling farther away from the low-slung lines of dusty Plano.”
It was so easy for me to become immersed in the world of Hampden and envision myself blazing past the Vermont countryside in the backseat of Francis’ convertible or strolling through Hampden College’s rolling hills with the twins at twilight.
I felt that Book II was the weaker of the two, lacking the same sharp focus that I loved about Book I. That being said, Book II certainly had moments where the stakes are high and tempers are running higher, but those moments ebb and flow, lacking the consistent build up of tension that worked so well in Book I. There is also one moment at the very end, which I am not elaborating on to avoid spoilers, that felt very brushed over and abrupt, even though the entire novel had been building up to that moment. I would have felt the weight and impact of it even more if Tartt had further explored the immediate aftershocks of that moment instead of essentially ending the book there.
Despite the few problems I had with it, The Secret History was a thrilling ride full of twists and turns that I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s fast paced and chock full of references to classical civilization, making it the perfect fall read for all dark academia wannabes.