Review: The Secret History (1992) by Donna Tartt

A group of pretentious rich college kids collectively going insane. What’s not to love?

Published Sept 11, 1992 by Vintage

559 Pages

A Greek Statue, with the Title of the novel "The Secret History" and the name of the author clearly shown. Also listed as an "International Bestseller" with a blurb from the New York Times that reads as the following: "Enthralling...A remarkably powerful novel (and) a ferociously well-paced entertainment...Forceful, cerebral, and impeccably controlled."

My roots as a reader, at least in my adulthood, are firmly grounded in the contemporary romance genre. Last year, I read close to two-hundred books, a vast majority of which were romance novels. I obviously developed a clear appetite for the formula and found solace in the vast array of differently shaded characters thought up by authors writing within the genre. Literary Elitism is very much a thing (a bias, an outlook, a disposition, and the like), especially when the conversation is directed towards genre fiction: thrillers, sci-fi, fantasy, romance, horror. Stories that follow a certain, tried-but-true formula. Readers know what to expect, and that’s usually that.

This year in particular, as I have made a concerted effort to expand my tastes beyond the contemporary romance genre, I have found certain experiences to be quite rewarding in and of itself. That previously stubborn disposition in which I normally limit my reading choices to a single genre, has slowly abated. To clarify, I do still read romance. My palate is somewhat more balanced, as I hope to convey with this site overall.

What does all of this have to do with my thoughts on The Secret History? Well, it may be one of the best books I’ve picked up this year. Ever? We’ll see.

The Secret History follows protagonist Richard Papen, as he attends a swanky and prestigious East-Coast (Vermont) Liberal Arts College. You get the sense at the beginning of the novel, that there is a kind of aimlessness to Richard; he is unhappy with his native California settings, and feels he is somewhat squandering any ‘potential’ by attending college in his home state. He yearns for a change in scenery, and one afternoon upon cleaning out his closet, happens upon an old brochure for Hampden College in Vermont. After filling the forms out, off he goes.

One thing to note about Richard is that he maintains scholarly interest in the study of Classics; namely, that of Ancient Greece. At the outset of the story, Richard is a pre-med student, on the track to becoming a Physician – but, the author makes it clear that this is a point of contention, feeding into Richard’s decision to not only switch areas of study but to transfer schools altogether.  While Richard is the main lens through which we experience the story, upon his first-semester at his new school, we encounter a group of eclectic, mysterious, and charismatic students enrolled in the sole Classics Program at Hampden, led by an even more disarming personality.

Determined to resume his studies in Ancient Greek Classics, Richard is told that the only course offered by the institution, led by the enigmatic Julian Morrow, is not only closed for enrolment but that entry is left up to the instructor alone. The course, which resembles a cohort program more than anything, would span the entirety of Richard’s time at Hampden (four-ish years) and currently boasts a class list of only five, wealthy, students at the outset of the story. We are heavily acquainted with these five students over the course of the narrative. As Richard is implicated in this established set of pupils – Henry, Francis, Bunny, and twins Charles and Camilla – as the description of the novel points out, the boundaries of normal morality gradually morph from “obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last – inexorably – into evil.” (Tartt, 1992).

Online discourse, especially as of recently with BookTok, YouTube, and the like, would paint this novel out to be the defining work that jumpstarted the inspiration for dark academia. Indeed, my first review posted on the site hones focus on another novel that very much fits within this aesthetic (These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever). An idealized or romanticized version of academia (as the name suggests) intertwined with an exploration of darker themes. The moniker is very much a surface level assessment to describe what the The Secret History is all about. The more time I spend apart from having read the novel, the more I grow to love it.

There are so many ways to interpret this novel, especially with the numerous references to the classics on which its main characters are primarily concerned with. It reads like a Greek Tragedy, set in contemporary setting (which funnily enough, Tartt resists completely and wholeheartedly building out the world beyond the confines of Hampden College; in short, the novel could have just as easily been set in the 1950s, the 1970s, or the 1990s. The temporal setting is not the focus of this novel, more so than its themes and what this author is trying to convey). It’s literary, and the prose at times can seem a bit dense with all of the references to classical literature and Ancient Greece, but ultimately, I found to be utterly brilliant. Even if it took me around the 30% to become fully invested and engaged with the story.

But what is The Secret History about? Thematically, the book is primarily invested in its exploration of cults, the duality of choice and consequence, and I might even add from a psychoanalytical angle, civility, and human repression of evil. Even further, I also like to think of this book as a critique of the often times pretentious nature of academia or higher education, especially when thought of in terms of class. While in hindsight I thoroughly enjoyed what Tartt was able to achieve with this novel, I fully recognize that this will not be for everyone. The novel does not end on ‘happy’ note, and the pace at which the story unfolds is deliberately slower so as to provide ample opportunity to readers to ponder what Tartt may be attempting to say on these topics and themes. For readers who have an appreciation for literary writing; writing that, although beautiful, may perhaps be a little more challenging in prose composition and constant referencing to the Ancient Greeks (at least in the literary sense), this novel will be for you. Tartt has so much to say here, and it is all so fascinating.

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