Book Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History - Donna Tartt

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…

Book Description:

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.

My Thoughts:

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.

This book is available to buy from: Amazon UK / Book Depository

25 thoughts on “Book Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  1. Great review. I have The Little Friend in my library gathering dust. Bought it because of all the praise but I’m afraid it won’t be for me either because of the writing style and the descriptive prose. Maybe I’ll pick it up in a courageous moment but it won’t be soon 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d be interested to see what you make of it. A reader friend of mine also disliked this one but absolutely loved The Goldfinch – saying it was like two different authors had written the book. So, I hope that’s the case when you read The Little Friend and you end up loving it 😊 At some point in the far future, I’ll probably give The Goldfinch a read.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, so sorry you disliked The Secret History. It’s one of my all time favorite books and I’m currently rereading it. At just over 35%, I again love it. But, I also adored A Little Life!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interestingly my friend who loved A Little Life, also love The Secret History – maybe there’s a correlation there 🤔 lol.
      Enjoy your reread! I certainly won’t ever read this again lol but I will give The Goldfinch a try – have you read that one?


  3. I loved this years ago when it first came out, but I think I may just have been at the right stage of my life for it. When I was so disappointed in her later novels (especially The Goldfinch), I began to wonder what it was that had appealed so much about this one – I suspect if I read it now, I might feel much like you did about it. I think maybe it felt more original back then. I won’t re-read it – I’d rather remember enjoying it than read it again and be disappointed…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I know so many people have loved this one and I’ll admit, I’ve read about 10 pages of it last month but it didn’t grab me and I moved on. I’m so picky but I either feel it or I don’t and I didn’t with the writing style of this one. My heart still hearts that you didn’t like A Little Life😭Hope your next read is awesome!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I have to confess to *actually* highlighting my books. And, while I’m here, I break the spines too. Sorry…
    Found your post really interesting – I love this novel – but I can see what you mean about the pace.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Janel, this was a well-worded and diplomatic review. I’ve never read anything by Donna Tartt, but of course I’ve heard a lot about her writing. I cannot see myself reading this novel as I usually like to connect in some way with the characters, and I don’t think I would do so. Also, reading over six hundred pages for a glimpse of a hundred or so that were good, is not worth the time invested.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I totally understand – I’m glad I read it to the end so I got my 100 pages of enjoyment 😂 it helped that there were a few of us reading this one at the same time so we could discuss as we went along but there’s so many books out there, I wouldn’t force this one on anyone! Lol

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Fantastic review, Janel! I’m almost afraid to read this one lol. I bought it a while back but just haven’t gotten around to it because it’s sooo long! I don’t want to waste me time on it if I’m not going to like the characters either. I may just have to try it and see what happens! But later…too many good books I’m excited to read now! 😉😊

    Liked by 1 person

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