Book Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt ★★★★★


“Why does that obstinate little voice in our heads torment us so? Could it be because it reminds us that we are alive, of our mortality, of our individual souls – which, after all, we are too afraid to surrender but yet make us feel more miserable than any other thing? It is a terrible thing to learn as a child that one is a being separate from the world, that no one and no thing hurts along with one’s burned tongues and skinned knees, that one’s aches and pains are all one’s own. Even more terrible, as we grow older, to learn that no person, no matter how beloved, can ever truly understand us. Our own selves make us most unhappy, and that’s why we’re so anxious to lose them, don’t you think?”

Wow wow wow! This book was absolutely amazing. I loved everything about it. 5 stars!!

From the very first page, the narrative prose in The Secret History truly stunned me. I should have known, based on my love for The Goldfinch, that it would, but this book was even more relatable for me. The writing was so raw and true and engaging that it really hit hard in my soul. Donna Tartt has a way with words and turns-of-phrase that just capture the essence of a feeling, even a fleeting one that you cannot usually put words to, and articulates it perfectly. I was blown away by so much in this novel.

The plot itself was fairly simple really, if pretty dark. It is essentially a story steeped in the sub-genre of dark academia. It follows a group of elite students studying the Classics under an influential and charismatic professor. A professor who might not have their best interests in mind. From the very beginning of the book, the reader is aware that the group commits a murder and the rest of the novel is the slow unwinding of that tale. It is riddled with suspense and has a very ominous tone throughout. Parts of it were genuinely creepy. This is one of my favorite styles of book, this dark and depressed, sometimes manic, melancholia. I’m sure no one is surprised 😅. Books that unflinchingly gaze into the abyss of the human psyche speak to me like no others. I love when an author acknowledges the “banality of existence” and weaves a story around it with characters who are at once so flawed, but also so earnest in challenging that. What can I say, it’s the nihilist in me.

I underlined and noted so many different passages in this book. I had to have a pen handy at all times, because I just needed to mark the sentences that stood out to me. And there were a lot! I have read few books that really make me feel like my thoughts and feelings are scrawled on the page in front of me, but there were SO MANY in this case. Sure, not all of them were positive, but what can you do?? 🤷‍♀️ It was incredible. The writing was not only profound, clever, unassuming yet somehow extremely erudite, but so engrossing. I was a little apprehensive about starting The Secret History, because it was quite long and I wasn’t sure I’d get into it right away. I knew it’d be amazing, but I thought it might be a bit slow to start. But not at all! It was captivating from the absolute first page. I couldn’t put it down.

The characters were so dynamic and fleshed out. They appeared at first like they might be stereotypes or caricatures of what they represent, but they were all very original with clear voices. And they were so nuanced. I at once wanted to kill them and join them, see them fail and defend them. It was fantastic. I did think that the professor was going to play a larger part in the evil that eventually creeps into the group, but he was largely a red herring for another character, which I thought was a very smart move. Not that all of their motivations weren’t questionable, because they were. Everyone was morally grey here, to the most extreme degree. Even Richard, our narrator, was not above the bad decisions, even if he was largely an outsider/observer throughout the book. I appreciated that he was the one to make it out “alive” at the end, though. Granted, he was depressed and alone, buuuut still better off haha.

There were so many things to contemplate and unpack in this story. I feel like I am doing a terrible job at explaining it all, because I am just gushing about how much I loved it. I will definitely want to read it again at some point, in order to properly digest everything there is in it. It was so intellectual; I loved it. I know more than half of the Greek references went over my head, so I want to properly research things as I go along on a reread (I already had to look up a bunch of words I didn’t really know the meaning to!). There wasn’t time to really sit and contemplate everything on my first read through, because I was so interested in finding out what happened.

There is is very little I can say that is negative here. I know some people are not a fan of how the book wrapped up and I do admit that having the climax of the story about 250 pages before the end was a pretty polarizing choice. It left the last half of the book feeling drawn out and the tiniest bit boring. However, to me, seeing the aftermath of the murder, the decent into madness and paranoia for some of the characters was extremely interesting. I love a good character study and I think Donna Tartt is a master at writing them. I do see how that could be a flaw though. And I can see how some people may have expected more from the story, since it is so dark and suspenseful, but then not much happens outside of what we were told to expect in the beginning. There is a murder withing the group. I felt there was enough payoff in the demise of these characters after the murder that I wasn’t looking for anything else “bad” to really happen. I thought it was a clever choice, as it made it feel real and authentic in a truly disturbing way.

Overall, this was by far one of the best books I have ever read and I loved every minute of it. Tartt is such an impressive author and I will read more from her for sure. She makes me jealous! This is the book I wish I could write 😭.

Two paws up! This was the purrfect story.

Oh and little sidenote: this book reminder me so much of higher-brow How to Get Away With Murder, so if you like that show, you’ll probably love this.

Happy reading!!

Title: The Secret History
Author: Donna Tartt
Genre: Adult | Fiction Literature| Dark Academia | Fiction | Mystery | Suspense | Contemporary
Publication Date: September 1992
Page Count: 559 pages
Buy It: Wordery Book Depository

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