The Secret History by Donna Tartt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
TW for The Secret History: references to alcohol and substance abuse, self-harm, murder
In many ways, The Secret History was one of the most baffling, difficult, and frustrating books that I’ve ever read in my entire life. I’ve never read anything quite like this.
First, I’ll start with the good: Donna Tartt is a beautiful, sophisticated prose writer with a distinct style. The vocabulary used only serves to emphasize the academic, intellectual university setting of the novel and the exclusive, Classics-educated group of students that protagonist Richard Papen so desperately wishes to assimilate into. As a fellow Californian used to the fast-paced craze of the West, I see quaint New England as a fascinating wonderland through Richard’s fresh perspective: all falling autumn leaves, dusty and antique libraries, and elite, old-money academics.
However, the rest of the novel immediately takes a dark turn, exploring bacchanal, unthinkable concepts of evil in human nature. First of all, I consider myself sufficiently patient when it comes to arduously long books, but the sheer page count of this book became increasingly difficult to get through as each page revealed yet another shocking truth about the ostensibly perfect characters that grudgingly accepted Richard into their group: twins Camilla and Charles, Francis, and Henry (Yes, he is an enigma. Yes, I find his dark and brooding, extremely intelligent, unofficial leader of the group qualities extremely appealing).
Along with the dense chapters, I also think the emotional baggage is extremely heavy. This is not a book for light reading, nor does it have a definite beginning and ending that follow your usual story arc. As much as I enjoyed the detail and the moments of surprise, the evolving relationships of the six characters that catalyze a downward spiral of events dragged on too long for me, and the psychological thriller aspect of the book left me extremely depressed and upset with our reality. For anyone considering this book, I would probably ask you to reconsider. But if you’re into dark academia and extensive analysis of the depths of evil in the human soul, well, all I can say is brace yourself. —Review by Alysa S. ’22
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