Monday, October 7, 2013

Christina Read: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Release Date: April 13, 2004
Published by: Vintage
Recommended by: Pam (YA Escape from Reality)

Christina Reads Your Recommendations is a regular Monday feature here (inspired by A Reader of Fictions' Sadie Hawkins Sunday) in which you, my readers, get to choose what book I will read and review next. Got a book that you love and want everyone to read and review? That you're not sure what to think of and want a second opinion on? That you think I'll love or that I should have already read? Send in your recommendations via this form!

The Secret History by Donna Tartt - Goodreads | Book Depository

Truly deserving of the accolade a modern classic, Donna Tartt’s novel 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 they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last--inexorably--into evil.

On occasion I'm in the mood to read something a bit darker, more mature than most of the YA fare stocked on my shelves. I don't usually review adult titles, but this one is set on a college campus and may have some crossover potential, though it is quite bloody and brutal for those who are accustomed to YA. Anyway...

Why did I want to read this?
1. I went to a liberal arts college and I'm always looking for more books with college settings (and not of the now typical NA fare).
2. Last fall I took a class on Greek tragedy and philosophy, so needless to say, this topic and subculture are fascinating to me. This book is full of references to ancient, classical culture (Plato, Greek tragedies, Greek mysteries, the old gods, Latin, dead languages, etc.), and one of the plays constantly referred to was one that I'd studied and that enchanted me.
3. Anything that says "modern classic" is bound to catch my eye. True or false?
4. This book must have been on some list from an author or reviewer who I trust. I bought it last summer so I no longer remember where I'd seen it, but I'm sure that contributed to my excitement at the time. That, and one of my closest friends has consistently mentioned to me that her brother loved this one, and from what I know, he's generally a picky reader.
5. Unreliable narration.

Why am I telling you this? Because I went into the book with those expectations and found myself rather satisfied with what I'd gotten.

Ten Likes/Dislikes:

1. (+) Richard, the protagonist - Here's the thing you should know about the characters, including the protagonist. They do shitty things. Are they likable? That's something to debate, but Richard was probably the most likable of the bunch, especially as we see things from his perspective. Richard is a poor kid who was often depressed before he fell into this group of Greek-addicted misfits. He wasn't happy with where he came from, so he'd learned to lie quite well, and it's quite obvious that he's desperate for these people to like him. It's easy to slip into his perspective because you can sense some of that earnestness in how he looks at these other characters, but also because of his determination (he transferred from his first college; the way he approaches everyone and work and school) and the fact that he's a sort of outsider in the group - the only one on a scholarship and not with swathes of money at his disposal, not with great connections nearby. He's not the one who holds the group together, but he's probably the one you'd find it easiest to talk to of the bunch.
2. (+) World-Building - Do you like Greek culture? How about Vermont? How about dead languages and philosophy? How about liberal arts education? There's a lot to be said about the world that's built upon this Greek foundation. There are aspects of ancient Greek life that you don't think will necessarily apply until they do, and then you're just shocked. Even those familiar with ancient Greek culture, I imagine, will find themselves shocked and pleased with the level of detail - it's clear that the author, if not well versed in the classics already, did her research well. The liberal arts setting was also fairly well done except for a couple of things: one, even though the characters also comment on how unusual a situation Julian has (their adviser, most of their classes?), I doubt that could ever exist; two, this book has some of the typical stereotypes of college such as heavy drinking and drug habits. I don't remember meeting a single college-aged character who did not partake in these activities. It's true that these characters may not meet anyone like that, but drinking in the middle of day, constantly being hung over... It was only a tad disappointing that we just didn't get as much on the details of the collegiate setting and a more rounded picture of what it actually meant to go to a liberal arts college (though I understand that that was a part of the point). Everything is extreme.
3. (+) Characters - You want a book full of memorable, flawed characters? Check this one out. The characters sometimes act morally reprehensible and are not always likable, but they are so real, so easy to imagine. You've got this trying-too-hard Gatsby-esque all-American guy who's too proud and a tad slower than the manic others; you've got this cold, calculating scholar who alternates between sociopathic tendencies, academic ambition, and the loving charm of a leader; and more, many others who are just as developed as the original five (Richard, Henry, Bunny, Charles, and Camilla) such as their teacher, Julian. It is the ever changing character dynamics that propels a good deal of the plot.
4. (+) Plot - Once this story gets going, it's out there. It's remarkably detailed and complex and focused on character interactions changing, morphing as the characters constantly react in different ways to the complications thrown into their paths. And my god, this was unpredictable. Usually I pride myself on being able to tell where a story is headed, but for some reason -- maybe all the details and how well founded they and the characters were -- I just didn't see any of that coming.
5. (+) Themes/Moral Ambiguity - Sometimes I need to take a break from YA because there seem to be very few that manage to portray morally ambiguous situations well or at all. Not so here, though it's less about moral ambiguity (we all know what they should not have done), and more about the dawning horror of how easily one could fall into... as the summary puts it, evil. How much would you do to belong? How much influence can someone exert over you? Is it possible to escape the self? Is there such a thing as redemption? This is the kind of book I imagine would go well in a class that also featured Greek literature or philosophy; great to compare the two, and great for stimulating discussion.
6. (+/-) Privilege/Class Discussion - For all the discussion of how Henry and Francis and the lot are privileged, untroubled kids who can do as they please with money, wasting it on cars and alcohol and drugs and trips to country houses, this book does not seem to have a certain... self-awareness so to speak. Yes, it's set on a liberal arts college campus, and yes it's pointed out how it's not entirely pragmatic to keep switching majors and how a literature major might not be ideal for Richard. But what about these kids who are studying classics? Who are all so effortlessly slick and cool and noticed by everyone else on campus? Who can carry out conversations in dead languages and who have their classics teacher monopolize their class schedule but who are probably not learning stuff that will apply in their immediate future? In a sense, the poorer members show as outsiders in this group, but there's also a certain, oh-woe-is-me in regards to some of their affairs that makes sense for their situation but also highlights some missing aspects to this discussion on class and privilege. There's also the fact that unless you are somewhat privileged, you will likely not understand all the references and some of the conversations these characters have. I know I didn't, and sometimes had to skim.
7. (+/-) Believable? Empathetic? - Here are the two things that I think would drive away most readers: whether they think the story *could* actually happen, and whether they (need to) relate to the characters. I myself was questioning how believable some of the story elements were (I believe in the characters, but would they all be congregated in this Vermont liberal arts college? Would the circumstances line so perfectly?), and sometimes, as stated above, I found it hard to relate to their situation (privileged, sometimes unlikable white kids who do stupid things), but ultimately the story was too engrossing for me for either of those two issues to matter.
8. (+) Writing - The writing is magnificent. There's this dreamy, unreal feel to quite a few of the scenes that fits in with one of the themes: the beauty of terror. Indeed there's a disturbing poetic aspect to some of the more bloody and brutal scenes that I'd bookmarked because the writing--the writing was so wonderful. The author also did a great job mixing in a future POV looking in on the past well with the generally formal tone of the entire story.
9. (+/-) Pacing - The key word is "once" the story gets going. There was a beautifully terrifying prologue, and then I found myself somewhat bored/restless for about a hundred pages. Not right after the prologue, but maybe around pages 50 - 150? It was really slow in the beginning in that way that means you'll learn about the characters. For me this didn't always work because there was an abundance of narration, long info-dumpy/summary-like paragraphs on things that had happened that I couldn't keep track of and that didn't feel as immediate as normal scenes. But after *event* happens, the pacing was perfect, with rising tension and conflict that had me flipping the pages as fast as I could.
10. (+/-) The Cover - Eh. Not all that inspiring. I wonder if that's Dionysus?

Full of memorable if not entirely likable characters and burning philosophical questions on human nature, The Secret History is not to be missed if you're a fan of ancient Greek culture or unpredictable contemporary thrillers.

As always, feel free to send in more recommendations!

Up next: Stolen by Lucy Christopher.


  1. Great review! Glad you ended up enjoying it. It's been awhile since I've read it, but I agree with all of your points. If you're looking for likable relatable characters, this is not the book for you. But definitely an engrossing story. Donna Tartt went to Bennington during the late 80s and was friends with other literary brat packers like Jay McInerny and Bret Easton Ellis. I think she wrote this (or at least started this) when she was still in school.

    If you're looking for other college novels (not NA or YA) I would recommend Higher Education by Lisa Pliscou (I may have mentioned that one before). It's a week in the life of a Harvard senior. And then there's College Girl by Patricia Weitz and Blue Angel by Francine Prose. And then of course there's Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, which is more focused on the professors. ~Pam

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed this one - it's one of my favourites. Although like you pointed it, it's hard to identify with many of the characters, the whole darkness of the story is just wonderful - and especially the classics setting. I'm actually going to recommend you one now, based on this! =D

  3. This book sounds very interesting, I absolutely love Greek mythology though I do feel so far I've only skimmed the surface and haven't gone in-depth. I also like the sound of this being a non-YA title, sometimes I do just want to step out of YA and read something more mature and darker. Am going to keep my eye on this and read this if I can some day :)

  4. This is one of my favorites.. so glad you enjoyed it too! I definitely agree with you on the pacing though, it did take me quite some time to really get through it but once the story kicked in I was racing to finish. Can't wait to see what you think of Stolen!

  5. Hahah, yep, not very easy to relate to, but in a sense that just makes the story more interesting to me. Oooh, wow, did not know that at all. I don't know who McIerny and Ellis are, but I can see how that might translate into this work. And writing this while still in school? Also very impressive.

    YAY for more recommendations! :D :D I think you did mention Higher Education, but no worries - you're just getting me more excited for the book :). I don't think I've ever read a book focused on the professors... Goodreads, here I come...

  6. So you did! Thank you for the recommendation :). Haven't heard of it, but sounds super interesting and have added to my blog schedule. Yay!!

    And yes - honestly, without the darkness of the story, I might have DNFed in the beginning... but I could sense there was more and all the classics mentions and ah. Oh book. You complicated thing.

  7. I actually have read a bit of Stolen already ;) - two ? years ago - and liked what I'd read of the beginning, so am pretty sure I'll like that one. But so glad that the Secret History picked up for the both of us -- would you say more or less controversial, though, compared to Spectacular Now? Two different moral sets and focuses but I was just thinking of what it would've been like if you and I had discussed TSH instead.

  8. Ahh, it's a little less on the GM focus. I don't know if this makes sense but whenever I think of Greek mythology, I think of the retellings you'll see now in paranormal romance types, and I can tell you that this isn't that same depth - a different type of depth and exploration than that. Meh, me and my explanations. Charlotte, you can totally get this one from the library sometime :D :D. Maybe even an excerpt... the prologue? somethin' somethin'.

    Also, I will stop by tomorrow. My eyes right now are too heavy to focus on a post. I'm pretty sure I still owe you some other comments from before too...

  9. You know it's funny, but when I read it I never considered that these are kids. Maybe because they're in an older age group? Maybe because I read this before I started analyzing what I read in a harsh light. Not sure. But from what I remember it was written in a glamorized light but they certainly didn't get a happily ever after. I just remember being completely mesmerized by the writing style... it was beautiful.

  10. Oh this book! Ok, I read this ages ago--well it seems like ages because I have read so many books in between-- so my recollection of the book's events isn't as sharp as it used to be, but what attracted me to it were some of the same things you mentioned: college life setting--liberal arts college stetting that is--I'm an Art History/ Interdisciplinary Humanities major--so YEAH. The love of that setting and subject is there. As is the obsession with dead languages. For me it was Latin. I'm FAR from an expert on the subject--even with fours years of it in college--but I found this group's obsession with Greek really interesting. I also loved the secret society/ Bacchanalian cult theme in this book. Secret societies, especially academic or scholarly secret societies always fascinate me. And unreliable narrators--YES.

    Reading this book reminded me a little of reading Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl--total mind fuck--but in a good, if not slightly deranged way. After I finished The Secret History I remember thinking, "Whoa, that was disturbing" It was not what I was expecting, exactly. And it's was only after spending a few months away from it that i fully came to appreciate what a fabulous story it is. How intricate and complicated and just bat shit CRAZY. It's one of those books that kind of haunts you for a long time after reading it--and it still sticks with me in a way, even years later. Reading your review makes me want to pick it back up again (though I think I have lost my copy somewhere along the way) but in then again--I kind of don't want to read it again. I think that there would be more to discover on the second go round--but it's disturbing enough that I'm not really sure I want to go down that path again, you know? Anyway, quite a book! And I'm glad you responded to it the way that you did and wrote this fabulous review so I could kind of re-live it all again through you:)

  11. Oooh, Latin. There were some jokes in Latin, I think? You probably understood that part better than I did :D. And yessss to secret societies, although this borders more on the cult side o.O.

    Ahh, I still haven't finished / gone back to Gone Girl. This book was really disturbing - I think especially so for the fact that a lot of it feels realistic. Not necessarily the Dionysian cult, but the group dynamics, the way everything snaps into place... It is, as you said, intricate and complicated and bat shit crazy. I do know what you mean about it being very disturbing and not wanting to return to the book for that, but at the same time, I know I will because that kind of moral ambiguity and the cultlike elements - I don't think I've ever read that in another book and have had it portrayed so... accurately. Realistically. Makes me admire the book from a technique perspective... But ha, even if you don't pick up again, I'm glad my review reminded you of your experience with it.

  12. Very true. But I'd argue that neither the main characters from this nor Sutter from TSN get a HEA. Anyway--yes!! The writing is absolutely gorgeous. I'm definitely going to return to this one later - not just for the classical references but for some of the scenes, so beautifully written.


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