#44 – The Secret History

August 28, 2007

lean in close and i will whisper the last words you’ll hearI’m not super conscientious about keeping up to date with professional book reviews online; after checking The A.V. Club weekly I generally stick with book blogs, authors’ own recommendations, and word of mouth. If I did check reviews, I probably would have already been well aware of Donna Tartt’s bestselling The Secret History. As it stands, I hadn’t heard anything about it until a friend recommended it with maybe the best compliment I’ve ever heard paid to a book: “I wish I’d never read it so I could read it for the first time again.” After hearing that, I had to give it a try, and now I know exactly what she was talking about. Rarely is navigating the plot twists of a novel this unpredictable, or this entertaining.

The main characters in The Secret History are students in the Classics program of a small liberal arts college in Vermont.  The professor who runs the program only admits the most gifted, brightest students; as a result, the six students the book focuses on are intimidatingly brilliant, and monomaniacal about Ancient Greece to the point of being removed from the rest of the world.  Their remoteness from reality is only increased by the fact that, from the very first chapter on, the reader is aware that at some point one of the students will be killed by the other five.

The Secret History has been described as a murder mystery in reverse: although the identities of the murderers and their victim are revealed, the book’s first half introduces the characters and slowly reveals the circumstances and motives for the killing.  In my very first review here, of Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas, I complained about backwards-looking narrators slowing doling out their story while clearly withholding important information for dramatic effect.  I guess I wasn’t specific enough.  When done like Koontz, dropping infuriating hints about what’s to come, it sucks.  When done like Tartt, letting the story unfold naturally, yet tinted by the knowledge of imminent death, it’s a work of art.

While the murder and events leading up to it are somewhat surreal and hard to relate to, Tartt develops the story in such a way that you can see how it could actually happen.  It’s a classic example of how small events can snowball completely out of control, like in the best work of the Coen Brothers.  The second half of the books deals with the aftermath of the killing; their attempts to hide their guilt, and how students who are more comfortable with Plato and Dionysus than any contemporaries cope when forced to deal with the real world, in some cases for the first time.  The 1992 New York Times Review draws parallels to a number of works that are way over my head, but I’m going to go a lot simpler: picture the movie Very Bad Things, but with gifted academics instead of Jon Favreau and Christian Slater.

While the book could have easily been a predictable murder/comeuppance story, it remains surprising up until the very end.  I’d absolutely recommend reading it, but take your time: you’ll never get to read it for the first time again, after all.



  1. “I wish I’d never read it so I could read it for the first time again.” A man said that to me once at a book reading about CARTER BEATS THE DEVIL by Glen David Gold. I, too, simply had to read it then, and I felt exactly the same way. I still love that book.

    That said, I’ve been unsure about reading this one ever since I was less than impressed with Tartt’s THE LITTLE FRIEND. From this review, though, maybe I should get over it and give THE SECRET HISTORY a chance.

  2. I’ll definitely have to check out Glen David Gold then, that’s about the highest praise I can imagine giving to a book. Except for the ones I love reading over and over again, I suppose.

    This was the first I’ve heard of Tartt, so I can’t vouch for The Little Friend, but I found The Secret History very impressive. Looking at the Wikipedia synopsis, they seem like very different books, so I hope you do like it if you give it a chance.

  3. […] by Calum on May 25, 2008 In my review of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, I mentioned that a friend had recommended it to me by saying “I wish I’d never read it so I […]

  4. I think my highest praise for Little Friend was that it was written by Donna Tartt, if that makes any sense. With only 2 books to her names, I REALLY wanted to love Little Friend. Not nearly as good as Secret History, but that being said, I liked it a lot. I didn’t LOVE it, but I liked it.

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