First of all, I am not a Greek or Latin scholar or a student of comparative literature. Nor did I attend a highfalutin New England Ivy League school. I didn't understand the occasional lines of Greek, Latin, and French in this book, and I'm not an intellectual snob. But these small details don't detract from the thoroughly enjoyable experience of reading the Secret History. If you appreciate a well-written, well-told story that entertains, has good character development, an intriguing story, and reveals more than a little about human nature, you're going to like this book. As if that weren't enough, there's also a liberal dose of contempt for the rich, and who doesn't enjoy that?! For those who've studied Greek, Latin, French or the classics, the story will be even more rewarding.
Tartt uses Richard, the most accessible character, to tell the story with ease and authenticity. The six main characters (all in their early twenties) live in their own insular world at a small New England upper crust college, studying the classics with one solitary professor. There's Henry, the leader and probably the one most likely to succeed as a true scholar; Francis, the skittish hypochondriac; Charles and Camilla, the twins; Bunny, the obnoxious and ill-fated one of the bunch; and Richard, the California kid from the most humble background of all. At first, Richard can't believe his great luck to fall in with such a gilded clique, but as usual, things are not as they appear. Soon, the outer world intrudes (they bring this upon themselves, of course) and things fall apart. It's the telling of the unraveling that grips you as Tartt deftly controls how much to tell and when. I marveled at her lush descriptions that rival a poet's, her skill at narrative and dialogue, and her most revealing descriptions of human mannerisms and behavior. She repeatedly builds intrigue and tension all the way to the end of the 500+ pages of the novel. This is no easy task, but she makes it look effortless. While reading it with an eye on technique, I think, "of course that's how it's done."
When this book came out 10 years ago, Donna Tartt was reported to have been paid the highest publishing advance ever for a first book, over $400,000. I don't know if the book is worth that or not, not knowing how worth is calculated in the publishing industry. Still, having read the Secret History, I can see what all of Tartt's fans have been waiting for these past 10 years, and the Little Friend is now on my list of must-reads.
Secret History is "definitely cinematic, baby." Images of The Bad Seed, Village of the Damned, and the Talented Mr. Ripley came to mind early in the story as Tartt developed the characters. The setting is so clearly drawn in some parts that I suspect Tartt wrote them with an eye on cinematic rendering. A top Hollywood director currently holds the rights and I'm looking forward to the movie.
The Ballantine Books Reader's Circle edition contains "A Conversation with Donna Tartt" along with "Questions and Topics for Discussion" for those fortunate enough to read this book in a group setting. I loved reading Tartt's list of authors she admires. It's no surprise that her list of poets is even longer. All of her interests are well represented in the Secret History, and if you share any of these, reading the book will be an even more fulfilling experience.
Don't be put off by the setting and character types in this book. You don't have to be a literary snob to understand or enjoy the story. It's worth the time to read the book, and if you're an aspiring writer, there is much here to educate and marvel at. I highly recommend the Secret History.
on December 22, 1998
There are a number of reasons that The Secret History has been one of my favorite leisure-reading selections for several years (and I have to admit that I re-read it periodically, typically devouring it in 2 or 3 nights). I think Donna Tartt's greatest gift lies in her ability to create a story that has the suspense and sales appeal of a mainstream bestseller AND a tremendous richness of texture, with a bit of philosophical and intellectual weight thrown in for good measure (granted, the book's not as deep as some people claim it is, but compared to the flimflam put out by authors like Robert Jordan or Tom Clancy or John Grisham, it's practically a college curriculum wrapped up into a single volume!). Ms. Tartt can create a mood and evoke a setting like no other popular writer I can think of, and I find her descriptive powers, her dialogue, and her attention to detail to be irresistible. I went to college in the late '80s, and I was a lower-middle-class kid from central Texas who wound up in an Ivy-league institution that, although it wasn't nearly as insular or uniformly snobbish as "Hampden"/Bennington College, had its fair share of decadent preppies. So to me, at least, a lot of Richard Papen's insecurities and anxieties ring true-to-life.
One last note: to readers who were bored or put off by the references to Greek, Latin, French, and English literature, I would suggest that, rather than condemn Ms. Tartt for being pretentious or pedantic, we be excited that someone has the daring and the ability to create a novel that has a high idea-to-page ratio AND supports an exciting, appealing story. If you don't understand an allusion, look it up and learn something new! [I'm a college instructor myself, so pardon a bit of pedantry on my part... :-) !]
on March 12, 2003
Since I'm so late to the game with regards to Donna Tartt's hit novel "The Secret History", I'll just try to list the things I found striking about the book, both positive and negative:
1) The author is clearly knowledgeable about ancient Greek, and conveys some of the power and expressiveness inherent in the language (or so I imagine -- I never studied it myself, but I would like to after reading this book).
2) "The Secret History" is definitely a page-turner. I read it in a mad frenzy over three days. I think the author "cheated" to keep my interest though -- clues to the plot are parcelled out quite parsimoniously and the reader is forced to share the confusion and gradual dawning of the narrator. It's well done but frustrating; the epicenter of my annoyance lies with the character of Henry, who is inscrutable and enigmatic throughout. The novel might have been less exciting without this haze thrown over the main characters' motivations, but it seems kind of cheap to build suspense by teasing the reader with half-heard conversations and veiled comments all the time.
3) The characters are drawn quickly and convincingly, but not fleshed out as much as I'd expect from such an ambitious novel. Otherwise I think the author's writing style is very good -- some nice turns of phrase but still very readable and not show-offy. Some reviewers here have complained about the brief bits of non-English dialogue. There are a few times when it's not translated, but they were rare enough not to bother me.
4) You can definitely guess what kind of college life the author had from "The Secret History". In the book she mercilessly stereotypes vapid cokeheads, aggressive party boys and loopy hippies. The main characters, a group of six students studying ancient Greek and the classics together, are very segregated from their schoolmates and the outside world.
5) If I drank as much and slept as little in college as the characters in this book, I don't think that I'd have had the stamina to graduate. Otherwise, the novel progresses pretty plausibly, reminding me of the movie "The Simple Plan": A seemingly simple situation grows more and more thorny as the tension escalates and the students take actions that seem reasonable at the time, but have unintended consequences.
All in all it was a good read. I especially enjoyed that it got me excited about the classics -- Now I wish I had the time, talent, and energy to learn ancient Greek.
on December 8, 2009
I just recently finished this book for the second time, and I must say, my impression of it is ENTIRELY different from the first time I read it. The first time through I thought it was terrific -- well written, intriguing, authentic, mysterious, and downright spooky in places. I thought the idea for the novel was great and that Donna Tartt executed it flawlessly.
My impression having just finished it for the second time.... what in the world was I thinking seventeen years ago?! The book today reads as a bloated, narcissitic, overambitious tale that leaves MUCH to be desired in its delivery. The idea for the novel is still great, but Tartt leaves so many of her ideas unfinished and unexplored and ultimately leaves the reader frustrated and wanting more. The idea of the quirky, mysterious classics professor who enchants his six students into a private other-world of sorts is brilliant (Plato, Homer, Bacchus, Dionysian ritual) -- however, the reader never finds out anything about this professor that would make us believe these six students would blindly follow him into this strange world. Instead, he is a flat, peripheral oddball and I can't imagine anyone giving up their "normal" college experience to follow this weirdo.
The students' characters are developed more in depth, but some of them seem like they are straight out of the 19th century instead of the 20th. Page after page of mundane details -- sitting in the school cafeteria, what they ate, how many cigarettes they smoked, how much booze they drank, how long they slept, what they wore -- aaaaaghhhhh!! Enough already. Hundreds of pages of details that don't move the story forward at all. This book could easily have been pared down from 560 pages to 300 -- hundreds of pages just lopped off and the reader would have been spared wading through this bog of unnecessary blather. Also, while alcohol and recreational drug use is to be expected in a college setting, these kids were popping so many pills and drinking so much booze throughout the entire novel it seems unlikely they could even stagger in to their classrooms. They popped uppers to get themselves going for class, downers to get themselves unwound after class, all chased by copious amounts of booze that just didn't ring true in the college setting. I'm sure there are plenty of kids in college abusing drugs and alcohol, but honestly, EVERY kid on campus? Wasn't my college experience at all.
The most intriguing question to me is, why did I love this book so much at age 27 yet find it so annoying at age 44? Obviously, what I THOUGHT was destined to be called a classic really isn't one. I suppose it appealed to me more the first time because I was closer in age to the characters and could identify with them on some level (college experience, youth, etc.) However, as an older reader the whole thing just seems silly and unbelievable -- would college students really behave this way? Really? Classics stand the test of time and are relevant to most readers regardless of age, race, nationality, etc. This book feels very dated (early 80s m-TV era) and I can't imagine readers today would have the same feelings about it as readers did when it was first released.
I did still give it 3 stars because it is well-written in many parts and Tartt's writing skills are apparent. All this book needed was a good editor...
on August 23, 2008
"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. He'd been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history -- state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter; the college closed, the dye factory in Hampden had shut down, people coming from New Hampshire, upstate New York, as far away as Boston."
Richard Papen came to Hampden College as a transfer from a small school in California. Why did he choose this tiny, but prestigious college so far from home? He liked the brochure. And it was about as far away from his parents as he could get. His father wanted him to take over the family gas station and his mother couldn't understand his need to go to college at all. Anxious to be rid of the monotony that his life had become in the small tract home where his parents really didn't seem to care much for him, he applied to Hampden. With a lot of help from financial aide, he was accepted. But mounting the bus to take him to Vermont changed his life forever.
When he arrived, his chosen major was English Literature. But he was fascinated by the students who were "Classics" majors. Richard had wanted to continue his study of Greek, but found that he was not able to register for the classes. They were taught by the enigmatic professor, Julian Morrow. He hand-picked the students for the Classics, and only allowed a handful into the program. While Richard wasn't all that interested in the major beforehand, it seems that you always want what you can't have. Determined to be a part of this group, Richard tried to register with Julian, but was shot down immediately. Only when he happened upon the small group in the library trying to finish some Greek homework did his luck change. He was able to help them find some answers, and was indeed admitted to the program. However, this program was all-encompassing, and Richard had to drop all his other classes.
There were 5 other students in the program: Henry Winter, a tall, dark-haired boy that worse glasses and English suits. He was brilliant and wealthy. He studied endlessly and spoke 6 different languages. Edmund, "Bunny" Corcoran, was loud and rude, but lovable in a way. Francis Abernathy, was elegant and refined. He wore exotic clothes and pince-nez glasses. And again, came from money. The last two of the group, were the twins: Charles and Camilla Macaulay. They were blond and beautiful, sophisticated in a way that Richard had never known. And now he was one of them, although he always seemed to find himself on the fringe of the group. But eventually, they accepted him and even started inviting him to go away to Francis' Aunt's home in the country for weekends.
This book is basically 2 halves. The first is before Bunny is murdered. And the second half is the aftermath of said murder. Strangely enough, it's a bit of a mystery even though you know in the first page who is murdered and who is responsible. Donna Tartt's writing is amazing. It's beautiful, and the story which is a tough read seems to flow with ease.
"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."
Tartt takes a group of kids, albeit not exactly the normal college students, and creates an intense character study of them. She throws in a planned murder and then creates an atmosphere in which their world seemingly breaks down inch by inch. Of all the characters, Richard is probably the least defined. But he is basically a good kid caught up in circumstances that were completely beyond his control. The controlling factor is Henry. From one moment to the next, you have no idea whether he is a soft-spoken intellect with only a desire to fit in, or a cold, calculating man who will do anything to achieve what he really desires: power and control over others.
Even the minor characters in the book are well-written and thought out. Julian, the enigmatic professor who seemingly loves his students. But might just love himself and his reputation more. Judy Poovey, another friend of Richard's is loud and funny. And Cloke Rayburn, the campus drug-dealer, who is a prep school friend of Bunny's, gets caught up in the disappearance of his friend and has no idea why.
Underlying all of this is the group's desire to follow Henry, even though in their minds they know it is wrong. Henry is such an incredible force, and is the epicenter of the entire story. What are his morals? And do they fit with the morals of today's society?? Donna Tartt lays it all on the line, and leaves it up to you to decide the answer to these questions. A brilliant, well-written novel, The Secret History is going to be one that sticks with me for quite some time. I realize this isn't much in the way of reviews, and I know there is no way to do justice to this book. But if it gives you a peek into a fantastic story and makes you want to pick it up, then I guess my job is done!
on February 2, 2000
I find it ironic that this book which was so inpired by the classics was the one to make me cast away my copies of Milton, Chaucer and even Balzac for more contemporary fiction. In a world taken over by Mary Higgins Clark and Danielle Steele, it is nice to know that there is something else out there. In contrast to many of the reviews I have read, I didn't feel that the characters were unlikeable. I admired Henry for his intelligence and discipline, I was surprised by his supposed sacrifice for Charles' sake which did give his character more depth. From the moment I started reading, I couldn't put it down. I found that I was able to identify with all of these characters, Richard for his insecurities with his former life, Bunny for his tendency to say the wrong thing without realizing or caring, Francis for so badly desiring something he could not have, Charles for his all consuming jealousy, Henry for his stubborness and Camilla for her imagined fears. It was my ability to identify with all of the characters that made me so interested in the story. So few books are able to capture my interest for 500+ pages. "The Secret History" was beautifully written. Tartt was able to accuratly put into words the picture of a small New England town. It is true that she often added details, not quite subplots, to the story that didn't have much to do with the main plot, but that is part of the beauty of her writing. It makes for a more realistic story with these added details. Life is generally random, unrelated events all woven together contributing to some greater purpose, though not always directly. Stories that can be wrapped up nicely under a big red bow, with every part contributing to the last page may be easier to read,and they may be shorter, but not that realistic, or even that interesting.
on February 2, 2015
The premise of The Secret History sounds great. A big secret, charismatic but maybe truly creepy people, a downward spiral and drama and tension....and I really wish this book was anything as great as it sounds by the premise.
That's not to say the premise is incorrect- it's factually true. But it leaves out the rest of this book, which can be summed up like this: Using bloated narrative, 'tell don't show' techniques and constant over-sharing of information not relevant to plot or character development, Tartt drags out a rehash of I Know What You Did Last Summer until it's painful, with characters so underdeveloped and irritatingly superior that you'll root for a surprise ending where they all die and you can get on with your life. Prepare to waste your time, and wonder why people think this story is anything resembling good, with a plot so slow and awkward, you'll consider throwing it out the window at least a dozen times.
So...yeah, I hated this book. I hated that it could have been great if it dropped about 2/3 of its length, had some actual character development (through actions, reactions, and each one having some semblance of a personality) and portrayed the victim as anything other than a hateful leech. I also hated that the author narrated the audiobook, because she mumbled in a monotone the entire time, sucking any possibility of life out of this already painful story.
I recommend it to insomniacs looking for something to bore them into sleep, people who think large words alone make a good story, and those to whom cardboard cut-outs could be considered "deep characters". Or, to nobody.
on January 15, 2003
This book is worth reading, but don't set your expectations too high. I wanted to like this book. The reviews and summaries were compelling - Greek students performing ancient rites, a secret society, a bit of mystery topped off with a murder. This was something I couldn't pass up.
I really did want to like this book.
The premise of this book held promise, and unlike other reviewers, I didn't think the beginning was too slow. I was willing to be patient, I was willing to allow Tartt the freedom to develop the characters and establish the scene. And from time to time, I was rewarded. There are some wonderfully written passages in this novel, and I did find a couple of the characters likable. Unfortunately, though, Tartt's flashes of brilliance were usually followed by stumbling blocks of cliches. One moment I would find myself awed by her words, the next moment would find me with my head dropped in disappointment wondering if she bothered to proofread her own work.
I thought the main character was too passive a participant and not interesting at all. Yes, maybe that is who he was supposed to be, but I found myself not caring what happened to him. Usually a passive, unmotivated character kills a novel, and in this case, he nearly did. His actions became increasingly difficult to believe, especially during the winter break when he didn't have the common sense to leave the warehouse where he lived - a room with a hole in the roof that allowed snow to fall into drifts in his room. I can only imagine that Tartt was trying to be purposely cryptic and symbolic here, because for the life of me, I can figure out no other reason why the character would put up with this.
Bunny (the victim as revealed on page one) was the most annoying character I've read in fiction in a while - I'm surprised he lasted as long as he did - which brings up another issue. I had a hard time believing that a person despised this much by everyone around him was allowed into the "circle." He freely spent their money, verbally abused them, and lived off their family in some cases, yet the group felt protective of him for no given reason. Tartt attempted to explain that there was some portion of Bunny's personality that people found mysteriously attractive, but instead of showing us that and allowing the reader to find that same aspect attractive, thereby allowing the reader to sympathize with the other characters' feelings, she merely told us this attractiveness existed.
And while I've lived the college town life and can personally vouch for the experience of being treated differently than a local, Tartt seems to take it to the extreme here. She inconsistently paints this town, one moment it seems like 1950's America with all the typical attitudes, the next moment the town is modern with obvious references to recent lifestyles. I'm not sure if this was intentional, or something Tartt overlooked.
I was disappointed in Tartt's succumbing to the temptation of making incest as the big secret between twin brother and sister. This is more of a cliché than I think most people realize. Brother and sister twins frequently have to field "jokes" from friends concerning their sexual habits, and for Tartt to include that was just another cliché to throw on the large pile she had already built.
What I did enjoy about this novel was what it revealed about our mentors, heroes, and role-models - that they're human. And sometimes as we look up at them, we make them more than they really are. Then faced with a real-life crisis, we learn their faults at a time when we need them to be their strongest. Sometimes those role-models betray us. Unfortunately, this is only briefly revealed near the end of the novel and not fully developed.
Overall, I would recommend reading this book, not because some claim it will one day be a classical, and not because it's a particularly compelling story, but because there are glimpses of what Tartt can become with more experience under her belt.
I am not only a reader--I am also a book hoarder. I buy lots of books, and eventually I get around to reading them. Then, when I finish reading a book, I usually keep it, on the off chance that I might want to reread it someday. I have no such desire to keep my copy of "The Secret History" by Donna Tartt. This novel is a colossal disappointment. When this book was published nearly 20 years ago, I can recall the near-universal acclaim it received. Reviewers couldn't laud Tartt's debut novel enough. Copies of the book lined store shelves everywhere. I bought the book intending to read it someday, and a few months ago, I finally grabbed it off my shelf and dove in. Between the time I began reading this book and today, when I finally finished it, I've read about 6 or 7 other books (and this is rare, since I don't like to begin reading a book if I'm already reading another one). But slogging through this self-indulgent narrative was literary torture. The story unfolds with a narrative gimmick--the narrator, a student named Richard attending a small, exclusive upper-class college in the Northeast, reveals that he and a group of his friends have killed one of their own. The first part of this unnecessarily lengthy novel (524 pages!) chronicles the inane bohemian lives of this spoiled group of rich kids (Richard, the working-class outsider, is presumably our everyman guide through this mysterious world of privileged ennui). By the time they kill Bunny (yes, that's his name), I no longer cared about Charles and Camilla, the probably incestuous twins, or Francis, the fey gay guy, or Henry, the Machiavellian brains of the operation. These characters have no redeeming qualities, and they care about nothing, least of all each other. I don't necessarily need to have a novel populated by characters that I like, but I at least want to care about them in some way--the characters in this novel evoke no sense of "simpatico." If they were real people, I would studiously avoid them at all costs. Even the description of the murder is inert--there is no action, no tension, no suspense. And the rest of the novel meanders through a rather boring campus-wide search for the body, Bunny's ensuing funeral, and the dissolutions of the lives of characters about whom I did not care in the least. I cannot remember the last time I was so grateful to have finished a book.
on April 7, 2005
Donna Tartt's outstanding first novel, written while she was a student at Bennington, is a terrific mystery and, I think, an insidious look at the pathologies of the modern university. Richard Papen is a lower middle class Californian who has wended his way to Hampden College in Vermont, largely because he like the picture on the catalogue. Richard happens to be proficient in several languages, so he tries getting into one of Professor Julian Morrow's classical language classes. But he discovers that Morrow only teaches a select handful of students and teaches every class that they take. They form an elite clique within the elite campus. Eventually, Richard attaches himself to this group and is admitted to Morrow's disciple hood.
Morrow remains a sort of opaque presence, but Richard's life is soon entwined with the other students, lead by the wealthy & arrogant Henry Winter and including Charles and Camilla MacCaulay, the overly close twins, Francis Abernathy, a flamboyant homosexual, and Edmund "Bunny" Corcoran, a rumpled preppy of dubious social grace. Richard longs to fit into this group and, ashamed of his rather plebeian origins, is soon inventing a fake background for himself and taking on pseudo sophisticated airs.
However, there's more to this little clan than meets the eye, and as the story unfolds, he discovers that during an attempt to recreate a Dionysian frenzy, Henry, Francis and the twins have killed a local man. Now Bunny has found them out & is basically blackmailing them, exacting a cruel revenge for their many slights. Inevitably, they decide that Bunny must die and the rest of the book deals with the murder's aftermath.
When this book was first published it was attended by tremendous hype, both because of the youth of the author and because of her mentors, Willie Morris & Brett Easton Ellis among them. But the hype, and the comparisons to Crime and Punishment, could not obscure the fact that Ms Tartt had penned an absorbing gothic mystery which quickly became a bestseller.
I agree with many of the criticisms of the novel. Some of the characters are underwritten and we are not adequately exposed to the teaching of Julian Morrow that makes him so attractive to the students. However, these legitimate gripes are outweighed by the creepy mesmeric can't-put-it-down story that the author weaves.
In addition, I think there's another reading that you can apply to the book with some profit. The effete, elitist, amoral, hothouse atmosphere fostered by Morrow and embraced by the clique is an apt metaphor for the modern university. Here are students who are absorbed by their studies, or at least by the aura of their studies, 24 hours a day, who cede complete control of their own minds to their instructor. Not content with the elitism of a University so expensive that there are few middle class students anyway, they've further segregated themselves into a small band of like minded students. If they get in trouble, it's in the pursuit of some romantic intellectual ideal and after all, who do they kill, just a townie and a slacker student.
However you interpret the story, it's a rewarding reading experience.