Finished this book: The Secret History (by Donna Tartt)

 

The cover of The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

The cover of The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

 

The characters in this book are so fascinating to me. They often act in ways that surprise me, but once it happens, it feels like of course, it had to be that way. The main characters are (and remain) mysterious, even the protagonist, despite the story’s first-person narrative. The small group at the centre of the story are students in the odd Classics program of a small New England college. The book is peppered with Ancient Greek, the students incorporate classical sayings and stories into their daily lives, and there’s an undercurrent of the ways in which classical and modern ways of thinking clash with each other. My minor was in Classics, so I particularly enjoyed that aspect of the book.

There are more descriptive passages in this book than I normally like. (Oh how irritating are Tolkein’s endless paragraphs meticulously detailing the looming trees and fallen leaves and twisted vines and brackish pools and murky distances and clutching branches and gnarled roots!) But Donna Tartt’s protagonist notices his environment through the lens of his own feeling-states, and so the descriptions actually seemed to be part of the plot itself rather than just supportive detail.

I really like the writing style in this book, the attention to detail, the way the characters develop, the way the classics are woven into the story and are indeed central to the plot, and how the book opens by revealing that the students murdered one of their peers. The surprise is immediately taken away; we know what is going to happen. And yet, the story leading up to and away from that huge event is suspenseful and intriguing.

This one’s a keeper. I read it once about fifteen years ago, and I’m sure I’ll read it again.

 

The Secret History by Donna Tartt. 1992. ISBN 0-14-016777-3 (I think; the old price sticker glue is partially obscuring it). Penguin Books.

 

 

 

 

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7 thoughts on “Finished this book: The Secret History (by Donna Tartt)

  1. Claremary P. Sweeney

    I read Tartt’s first book many years ago and was enthralled with her writing style, its rich vocabulary and her character portrayal. The Secret History was both a novel and an educational experience. I did not feel that way, years later, in regard to her second novel, The Little Friend and then, years later, her most recent tome, The Goldfinch. Every time I picked up that book, I always put it down after a few chapters and washed my hands. I found nothing redeeming in it save the research on the art world and antiques. It has received accolades and awards, but I wonder, if on a later reading, the praise will persist?

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    1. nissetje Post author

      Oh how interesting and disappointing! I’ve never read anything else by her and was rather wondering if I should pursue that. Can you elaborate on the “washing your hands” part? I felt that way while reading the Game of Thrones books.

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  2. Claremary P. Sweeney

    Her characters are not only lacking in so many of the better human attributes but they are devoid of empathy. There is a numbness that runs throughout the entire tome. The only sympathetic character who avoids water because of his fear of it, ends up drowning! There is certainly no Karma in this book and it left me feeling as though I was drowning in a mud bath of callous cruelty every time I read a section. I would be interested in your feelings if you read it.

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    1. nissetje Post author

      Oh, interesting. I found the protagonist in The Secret History to be very numb and passionless, but attributed that to his depression and frequent use of drugs. And one of the few things that rang false for me was the relationship between Henry and Camilla, since they both seemed rather coolly narcissistic.
      Thanks for the reply. A “mud bath of callous cruelty” is not my idea of a fun way to spend my leisure time!
      Enjoy your weekend. 🙂

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      1. Claremary P. Sweeney

        I seem to feel that I have to finish a book once I start it. I really did think Tartt would make a U-turn for the better somewhere along the way. But that whole section in Las Vegas was too much.It left me feeling that the message she was ultimately sending to the reader was to despair of any good in the world. Your points about the numbness and the narcissism are very well taken. I still feel that her vocabulary and research are amazing and certainly the work’s best attributes.

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