I’ve lost track of the amount of times people have recommend this novel to me, telling me how brilliant it is. Now I’ve read it…
Truly deserving of the accolade Modern Classic, Donna Tartt’s cult bestseller The Secret History is a remarkable achievement – both compelling and elegant, dramatic and playful.
Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and for ever.
Before I read this novel, based on the amount of times it was recommended to me, I was expecting greatness, so you can imagine my devastation when I realised this wasn’t the novel for me.
The Secret History tells the story of a group of classics students at an elite American college, it’s narrated from the viewpoint of Richard, who becomes the latest addition to this already established group consisting of Bunny, Henry, Francis, Charles and Camilla. I’m not going to talk you through the plot but all you need to really know is what’s stated in the blurb: “When they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and for ever.”
At first, I really enjoyed Tartt’s writing style and even highlighted some on my favourite lines along the way (and by highlighted, I mean put a stick tab in the book, I don’t annotate my books, I’m not a monster!)
“He was a marvellous talker, a magical talker, and I wish I were able to give you a better idea what he said, but it is impossible for a mediocre intellect to render the speech of a superior one.”
“-bone-cracking cold that made my joints ache, cold so relentless, I felt it in my dream…”
After a while I began to feel like, yes the writing is good, but what exactly is happening in this novel; the events moved at a very slow pace – I realise this is a character driven novel but too many times it felt like events were at a standstill for too long. For me, I felt like what could have been explained in ten pages took fifty and I started to wish events would hurry along.
What became clear to me from very early on in this read was my dislike of every single character, I think this was intentional by Tartt as a rouse to give this character driven novel its dark atmosphere. The students in this novel reminded me of the group of friends in the novel, A Little Life, I found them to be incredibly self-absorbed to the point where their selfish nature made me not care what happened to them at all, and any ills that befell them, they’d be totally deserving of. I felt Richard, the narrator, was the most pitiful of all and I disliked him the most – he so desperately wanted to be a part of this group and play a part in their act that I felt no sympathy for him at any point; a popular saying springs to mind – “be careful what you wish for…”
So now you’re probably wondering, if I felt the pace was too slow and the characters uninteresting, why did I continue reading. Well, from the very first page we learn the ‘what’ and the ‘who’, not long after that we learn the ‘why’ and so I was interested to see where Tartt would take the remainder of this novel. I was intrigued to know the point of it all, what message, if any, is this novel giving out. The writing was very structured and it seemed like every single sentence was careful constructed and I needed to know why, what was to come.
And after reading the book, I can’t say I discovered any profound messages but I’m glad I finished it because the last 100 pages of this novel were its best. There was a real sense of urgency that was lacking in the earlier part of the novel, everything was imploding, and the fallout was shown, and it was indeed a very satisfying ending. If only the rest of the novel was as gripping, the pace didn’t necessary quicken but the sense of urgency certainly had me reading at a faster pace, and it was fantastic to see how the characters acted in the final situation they found themselves in. However, I can’t, in good conscience, recommend a novel on my really liking one sixth of it.
Overall, this novel contains some beautiful writing and has a very good ending but the character study and the novel itself were unnecessarily long. It’s always going to be frustrating when you finish a novel with over 600 pages and find that it didn’t really work for you at all – but at least it ticks another book off the ‘Amazon 100 Crime Books and Thrillers to Read in a Lifetime’ – although I don’t think this book really belongs in that list, I’d say this novel isn’t a crime novel but sits more comfortably in literary fiction. One more thing – if you do decide to pick up this novel, I’d pay attention the edition you buy because, in a novel of this length it helps if the pages are aesthetically pleasing as that makes for aesthetic reading; the edition I read was the smaller sized paperback and at times I was put off by the blocks and blocks of texts that appeared to be crammed on the page, I felt I had to concentrate a lot more.