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The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History (1992)

by Donna Tartt

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
10,844269259 (4.09)538
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» See also 538 mentions

English (250)  Dutch (7)  French (5)  Swedish (3)  Portuguese (1)  Spanish (1)  Norwegian (1)  All languages (268)
Showing 1-5 of 250 (next | show all)
I feel strangely empty now that I have finished The Secret History. Not empty in the sense that I have had to say goodbye to beloved characters, or I have seen a gripping story through to its conclusion. No, it is more of an emptiness that comes from the novel itself. I was curious enough to continue plowing through – a curiosity that stems in part from Tartt’s deliciously rich writing – but I felt disconnected. I never fell completely into the story.

The novel chronicles a year in the life of young Richard Papen, a product of a loveless home in some desolate town in California, who uses a passing interest in ancient Greek to get himself into a small private college in Vermont. Once at Hampden, Richard joins the elite circle of his fellow classics students: the quietly serious Henry, the flamboyantly obnoxious Bunny, the charming and intelligent twins, Camilla and Charles, and the emotionally charged Francis. It turns out, however, this tight-knit group shares more than just an interest in classical civilizations: one dark and tempestuous night, Henry, Charles, Camilla, and Francis try to reenact the ancient Bacchanal festival and accidentally kill an innocent bystander in the process. When Bunny discovers their crime, he embarks on a journey of psychological torture – driving the four students, with Richard now in the know, to hatch a desperate plan: a second murder. After Bunny’s death at their hands, the five remaining students cope with their actions in remarkably diverse ways.

It is a plot that screams psychological depth, and I know that is what Tartt was attempting to achieve here. These six students are separate from their peers, elevated, at least in their own minds, above the others. The first death is brushed off by the four perpetrators as an accident. They were in the throes of Bacchanalian ecstasy; they can’t be held responsible for their actions. The one person who does crack under the pressure of that death is the one student who wasn’t even there: Bunny. And he copes with his traumatized psyche the only way he knows how: by lashing out at his peers. I thought this was an interesting psychological approach, and I tried to get behind it, but I never quite made it. It might have been in the way this element was structured – the novel is told exclusively from Richard’s point of view, and he doesn’t find out about the Bacchanal and Bunny’s subsequent torture of his peers until it has been ongoing for some time. When Richard is brought into the fold, he reflects back on incidents and comments that were not part of the narrative… incidents and comments we as readers are just now learning about, and that makes the psychology of what is happening a bit hard to swallow.

It is the same in the months after Bunny’s death, when the five students each respond to what they have done in their own way. Charles slides into deep depression and alcoholism. Camilla just floats along. Francis panics at least three times a day. Richard can’t sleep, and he imbibes copious amounts of alcohol, cocaine, and sleeping pills. And then there is Henry. A character who is very much inscrutable, so when he announces that Bunny’s death has left him feeling empowered and untouchable, it is just a smidge unbelievable. Even more so is when Richard agrees that he feels the same. The same Richard who takes handfuls of narcotics every night because he can’t fall asleep.

There was probably a depth to this story that I never reached, and a depth that had I managed to find, would make the above psychology all that more believable and rewarding. But I didn’t get there. I was left wondering how I am supposed to believe what is happening in these students’ minds. How am I supposed to believe that a narrator who is haunted by visions of his dead friend also feels like an untouchable god? Sorry. Just didn’t quite get it. ( )
  parhamj | Nov 16, 2014 |
I found this compulsive, intelligent, intricately plotted, well written and in places darkly humorous. On the whole I agree with the positive reviews, but I had one or two doubts, partly because for all of the impressive characterisation I found the plot a little implausible, and partly because it seems to be trying to do too many things at once, but it was undoubtedly worth reading. ( )
  bodachliath | Nov 4, 2014 |
Does such a thing as 'the fatal flaw,' that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn't. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.

The Secret History is an odd sort of book. It feels like a weird mishmash of ideas, part-Brideshead Revisited, part-Talented Mister Ripley, part-The Great Gatsby and part-infused with the cynicism inherent in a lot of modern literary fiction (I felt overtones of the same atmosphere in Atonement and The Magicians too, though I liked those books much, much less.) It is, in essence, a murder mystery that begins with the murder and ends with mystery, perhaps more than I would like.

I'm not really sure what it was that ultimately worked for me - I think it was the cohesive nature of the plot that held together. The overarching mystery about why each of the characters acts in their own particular and specific way was truly compelling. It's also very easy to see how Richard ends up embroiled in the world of these rich kids, wanting to believe that there is something special about him, about all of them, that he is chosen. That the book opens with a death makes it pretty clear that things aren't really going to end well.

Tartt's prose is good, in some places great. And she knows how to withhold the right amount of information, how to tease you through the plot and make you feel like you're always on the point of revelation - but never actually giving it all away, even at the end. This is one of her greatest strengths - but at the end, I didn't feel like it was enough. The characterisation is great in places - Richard, for example, is fully believable as someone from an obscure background who wants to move beyond that - but weak in others - Henry is a bit of a sociopath and I don't really get much else from him. I think that is partially the point, but I don't really feel like she made it work all that well. I didn't buy Camilla's attraction to him either, especially after the length of time that had passed at the end - I could maybe even accept it in the context of the period while they were at college but not after the fact.

Like I said though - compelling! I enjoyed being suckered into the college-y world and the gradual disintegration of everything that Richard has believed about himself and the others. I was also kind of glad that nothing terrible happened to Richard because I did just feel awfully sorry for him most of the time even though he was a complete ass. I give The Secret History eight out of ten. ( )
  humblewomble | Oct 19, 2014 |
Not impressed. ( )
  DanielAlgara | Sep 26, 2014 |
A beautiful book. No redeeming characters whatsoever. ( )
  KatieEmilySmith | Sep 23, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 250 (next | show all)
As a ferociously well-paced entertainment, ... "The Secret History" succeeds magnificently. Forceful, cerebral and impeccably controlled, "The Secret History" achieves just what Ms. Tartt seems to have set out to do: it marches with cool, classical inevitability toward its terrible conclusion.

» Add other authors (8 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Tartt, Donnaprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
de Wilde, BarbaraDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kidd, ChipDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lange, Barbara deTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Siikarla, EvaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Come then, and let us pass a leisure hour in storytelling, and our story shall be the education of our heroes.
Republic, Book II
I enquire now as to the genesis of a philologist and assert the following:
1. A young man cannot possibly know what Greeks and Romans are.
2. He does not know whether he is suited for finding out about them.
Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen
For Bret Easton Ellis,
whose generosity will never cease to warm my heart;
and for Paul Edward McGloin,
muse and Maecenas,
who is the dearest friend I will ever have in this world.
First words
The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. (Prologue)
Does such a thing as "the fatal flaw," that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature?
...how I longed to be an orphan when I was a child!
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Wikipedia in English (1)

Book description
Richard Papen arrived at Hampden College in New England and was quickly seduced by an elite group of five students, all Greek scholars, all worldy, self-assured, and, first glance, all highly unapproachable. As Richard is drawn into their inner circle, he learns a terrifying secret that binds them to one another...a secret about an incident in the woods in the dead of night where an ancient rite was brought to brutal life...and led to a gruesome death., And that was just the beginning...
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140167773, Paperback)

Truly deserving of the accolade "Modern Classic", Donna Tartt's novel "The Secret History" is a remarkable achievement - both compelling and elegant, dramatic and playful. 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 for ever. "It takes my breath away". (Ruth Rendell). "Enthralling ...image the plot of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment crossed with the story of Euripides' "Bacchae" set against the backdrop of Bret Easton Ellis' "The Rules of Attraction"...forceful, cerebral and impeccably controlled...ferociously well-paced...remarkably powerful". ("The New York Times"). Donna Tartt was born in Greenwood, Mississippi, and educated at the University of Mississippi and Bennington College. She is a novelist, essayist, and critic and author of "The Little Friend". "The Secret History" has been translated into twenty-four languages.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:42:15 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Richard Papen had never been to New England before his nineteenth year. Then he arrived at Hampeden College and quickly became seduced by the sweet, dark rhythms of campus life -- in particular by an elite group of five students, Greek scholars, worldly, self-assured, and at first glance, highly unapproachable.… (more)

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Two editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0140167773, 0141037695

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