The Secret History by Donna Tartt

August 16, 2013

the secret history Plot summary (from the publisher): 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 their lives are changed profoundly and forever, and they discover how hard it can be to truly live and how easy it is to kill.

Warning: MAJOR spoilers below!

Liked:

  • I had no trouble imagining the way the group’s chosen field of study isolated them from the rest of the student body. I attended a similarly small school and remember the classics people always by themselves like this (well, not to the same extreme extent).
  • Bunny was made into a such an annoying, obnoxious, and obtrusive character that the reader could understand the reasoning behind his murder. I have to say, it wasn’t an entirely unwelcome event for me, given that I didn’t have to endure any more of his scenes.
  • The author did a good job of describing the desolation and isolation associated with Vermont winters. I’ve spent some time on the East Coast and wouldn’t want to live through another winter up there.

Disliked:

  • The book description made it sound like Julian, the professor, would be much more involved in the story. I was expecting something along the lines of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but that wasn’t the case at all. Due to his limited appearances, he can’t even properly be called a secondary character — maybe tertiary at best.
  • I had a hard time figuring out in what era this story took place. The technology (or lack thereof) made it seem like the ’80s, but the way the main characters talked made it seem like the 1920’s or something. That made the narrative feel disjointed and jarring at times.
  • Speaking of the way the characters talked: I think the author just went with every “pretentious twat” stereotype she could dream up. ONE person talking that way — Henry, perhaps — would be understandable. But for ALL of them to adopt the “old sport” mode of speaking was ridiculous.
  • The second half of the book (and this was a looong book, mind you) was incredibly boring. After Bunny was murdered, things got very, very repetitive and predictable. I understand that the author was trying to show the psychological effects the crime was having on the group (a la Crime and Punishment), but she did not succeed, IMO. All these characters ever did was drink themselves into a stupor (yawn) on a daily basis and observe the search party from afar.
  • It didn’t make sense to me that Henry would kill himself just because Charles was losing it. Suicide did not seem to be in Henry’s nature. That’s not to say he was hung up on living; but rather that he was comfortable enough killing others that the more “logical” solution (for the character) would have been for him to shoot Charles.
  • The author decided to make Charles and Camilla (the twins) have an incestuous relationship. WHY??? What purpose did that serve? How dumb.

Rating:

The Secret History by Donna Tartt was a very uneven book. At times the writing was excellent and the plot gripping, but more often than not the glacier-like pacing and lack of real psychological insight or depth made it hard to keep turning the pages. I give this one 3 stars out of 5.

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