Review: The Secret History

Salutations, my fellow bibliophiles. School may be the last thing you want to think about in the middle of summer, but reading about someone else’s school days is quite another story. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History will keep your brain sharp without making you feel as though you’re going through extra classes yourself. If you’re interested in reading about the most bizarre college experience ever, check out The Secret History.

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About the book: Richard Papen spent the first twenty years of his life in a small Californian town that left him perpetually miserable, but his life certainly became more interesting when he transferred to a new school in Hampden, Vermont. The book opens with Richard looking back on his college experience from the future–on one particular event, actually. Richard claims that he helped his friends murder their fellow Greek student, Bunny, then spends the rest of the book explaining how such a terrible situation came to be and what further horrors it led to.

” ‘Henry, my God,’ I said at last. “What have you done?’ He raised an eyebrow and said nothing, empty glass in hand, face half in shadow. I looked at him. ‘My God,’ I said. ‘What have you done?’ “

Generally I dislike books that describe the outcome before the causes, but in this book the occasional reminders that Bunny’s closest friends are about to kill him makes every interaction and conversation infinitely more engrossing. It all seems so normal–maybe these Greek students are slightly eccentric, but isn’t everyone a little strange in one way or another?–and yet they’re about to do the craziest thing they can imagine: they’re not killing just anyone, but one of their best friends! And they think they’ll get away with it! It all seems just a bit beyond realistic, but these characters and their lives inhabit the ordinary world so naturally that the believability of it all can’t be easily dismissed. The immense level of detail provides this modern classic such a lifelike feel that Bunny’s death is more shiver-inducing than many fictions with far more grotesque murders or killings on a larger scale. The Secret History is a surreal, psychological masterpiece in which the death itself is much less frightening than the people who’ve caused it. Even Richard, who’s taken part in this scheme, loses trust in his friends and struggles to explain or even comprehend what has happened.

“Some things are too terrible to grasp at once. Other things–naked, sputtering, indelible in their horror–are too terrible to really ever grasp at all. It is only later, in solitude, in memory, that the realization dawns: when the ashes are cold; when the mourners have departed; when one looks around and finds oneself–quite to one’s surprise–in an entirely different world.”

The most frustrating part of the book for me is that Richard seems to be narrating this story with the purpose of explaining how and why the exclusive Greek class decided to kill one of its six members, but largely fails to complete that task. We know from the prologue, before the book proper even begins, that Bunny Corcoran, at the hands of his friends, fell into a steep ravine and broke his neck. Before we know who the characters are, we know that they conspired to cause Bunny’s death and then afterward, left him there alone and drove back home to resume their regular routines. They take part in the search for Bunny’s body, attend his funeral, comfort his family, and spread the lies that confuse local, state, and federal investigations into the matter. And yet, with all of the details and anecdotes and background information Richard provides, he still says:

“I recognize attempts at analysis are largely useless. I don’t know why we did it. I’m not entirely sure that, circumstances demanding, we wouldn’t do it again. And if I’m sorry, in a way, that probably doesn’t make much difference.”

And yet, there’s something so familiar and human in Richard’s attempt to explain the inexplicable. Whether any of the Greek students, with all their study of famed ancient philosphers and intimate knowledge of each others’ lives, can provide any sort of rationale for Bunny’s death, it is a remarkable tale that will leave readers wondering who to trust, and whether anyone is safe. It is the kind of story that makes the reader question human nature, searching for any plausible grounds on which to deny that murdering a best friend in cold blood is impossible, and coming up empty.

My Reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. Although this book started out a little slow for me, and despite skepticism for the story arc after learning about Bunny’s death in the prologue, I couldn’t help falling in love with this book. Tartt navigates the reader through this work of art with the skill of a literary architect. It’s the kind of book that only grows richer the more times you read it.

Further recommendations:

  1. J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye features a much different sort of college student, but I think it has the same sort of exploratory feel–a new school, odd encounters with students and professors, finding one’s place in the world. If you like Richard’s narrative voice, you may like Holden’s as well, despite their vastly differing experiences with education.
  2.  Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck is the book to read if you find yourself agreeing on any level that killing Bunny was the right thing to do. Sometimes saving the one(s) with the best chance(s) means making difficult choices about others’ futures. If you like that aspect of The Secret History–the playing God aspect–check this one out.
  3. Another book that The Secret History reminded me of was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. There’s a lot of drinking and drugs involved in Tartt’s tale as well as Fitzgerald’s, but the aspect that really resonated in both of these book for me was the narrative voice of a man on the outer edges of the action. Both Richard and Nick are swept up in others’ fateful schemes, both apart from the main action and also acting as the glue that holds the rest of the characters together. If you like Richard’s character, you’ll like Nick’s in The Great Gatsby.
  4. One more: check out my review of e. lockhart’s We Were Liars, which is another great summer read featuring sort-of rich kids who try to get away with more than they can handle. This one also has an unreliable narrator, which is always a fun wild card. This one’s a YA read, for anyone who loves The Secret History but not it’s length, or isn’t as interested in delving further into the classics.

What’s next: I’m taking a foray back into my current favorite genre, historical fiction, with Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings. This one is narrated by two girls who live in the early 1800’s of South Carolina–one a child in a wealthy family chasing impossible dreams, and the other her personal slave, bent on freedom at any cost. Both girls’ mothers are temperamental and dangerous, struggling to control the uncontrollable. Stay tuned for more details, and until then,

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer–because you’ll never know when you’ll need someone standing between you and your “friends.”

The Literary Elephant

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