‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt [Book Review]

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The first book I ever read by Donna Tartt was The Goldfinch and I bought it on a whim.

Yes, this was back in a time in my life when I didn’t have a list a thousands of books to read and I would just go out to a book store and buy something that caught my eye. What a time!

Needless to say, I was completely captivated by this introduction to Tartt’s writing. I had some really intense conversations about it with the English teachers at my high school–because I was cool like that.

Which brings to mind the question: why the heck did it take me this long to read another one of her novels?

Remember that list of thousands of books to read I mentioned before? Yeah, it might have something to do with it…

But, at last, I have picked up another one of her novels and I pretty much didn’t put it down again once I got started.

Goodreads Summary

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.

The Fall of Eccentric Heroes

One of the barriers I always come up against with Tartt’s novels is that I start out empathizing with the main characters, growing to really like them, but as I learn more about who they are and they start to become more real I like them less. And yet I still care! It’s a roller coaster of emotions.

It’s almost as if Tartt creates a dream version of her characters at the beginning of her novels–these mythological creations which are doomed to fail once they are looked at closely.

Julian Morrow is a bit like a Trojan horse in this respect.

I was fully expecting him to be the mythological creature of the story. His mysterious and recluse nature pinned him as the perfect eccentric antihero. And yet Julian is probably one of the few characters I grew to enjoy more as the novel progressed.

It was our cast of misfits who failed to live up to my expectations–an outcome I should have seen coming given that the novel’s first page includes the line “We hadn’t intended to hide the body where it couldn’t be found”.

And yet it is this failure to be heroic people that makes Tartt’s characters so human. Richard Papen ceases to be type on paper and instead feels like a person I have known for years now.

Which only makes it harder to forgive what he has been a part of.

Normal Morality

This is a phrase that jumped out at me from the summary above because I’m not entirely sure what that means, especially in regards to this novel. After all, morality is a set of expectations invented by the society they apply to.

Perhaps this is a testament to Tartt’s writing ability because I’m not entirely sure if I can think of her characters as immoral. Sure, they are criminals and they did some terrible things but at the same time, they’re people–or at least they are in my head!

Which is why I think it’s a bit melodramatic to call the characters “evil” as the summary does, because I don’t think characters created so well can be described by such a two dimensional word as “evil”. Are there some dead bodies? Maybe, but evil seems too simplistic.

Tartt masterfully pulls the reader into the lives of her characters and then starts to pick a part who they really are. The moment I thought I knew how a character would react was the moment some new information was revealed about them.


Rating: 4 out of 5.

A lot of the time I find thriller type crime novels to be too plot based and too fast paced for me to really get into them. Sure, they’re fun reads but the emotional connection just isn’t there.

Which is why I think I find Tartt’s novels so compelling–they’re crime novels that weight heavily on character. Her novels have such weight to them that really, it isn’t about the crime at all. I got to the end of this novel and I wasn’t even concerned about whether the body was found or what the trial would be–I wanted to know how Richard would deal with the emotional strain of being a part of a crime.

Tartt builds such wonderful characters and then pushes them to their breaking point. The joy of reading her novels is finding out what will happen after the character breaks.

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