Published by Vintage on April 13, 2004
Genres: Adult, Psychological Thriller
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.
My son, Jax, reviewed books from time to time on my previous blog. As a Mother’s Day gift, he wrote this review for me. I hope he’ll do more over the summer. 😉
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.
–Friedrich Nietzsche, and the opening lines of The Secret History.
It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these reviews. I think my last review was on a book about solar eclipses or something along those lines.
I had read Tartt’s The Goldfinch about a year before I started this one. The Goldfinch is obviously a good book; you don’t win Pulitzers with bad books. A year later, I picked up The Secret History at Powell’s in Portland, curious to see how her first novel compared to her latest.
The Secret History appealed to me when I found it because of its setting. I attend a small liberal arts college (Lewis & Clark, roll Pios!) in Portland, and the setting of The Secret History is in a fictitious “Hampden College,” based off of Benington College in Vermont. I found the book to be as thrilling as it is thoughtful, and wonderfully erudite.
“I felt my existence was tainted, in some subtle but essential way.”
The novel centers around one formative event: the murder of classmate Bunny Corcoran (it’s on the first page, so not a spoiler!). The novel follows antihero Richard Papen as he struggles to find his way into the secretive Classics program at Hampden. The ancient Greek class has just five students, six with the addition of Richard, taught by Julian Morrow, who is equal parts charismatic and enigmatic. Soon after Richard becomes involved with the group, tensions rise, and the characters begin their descent from moral ambiguity to evil.
I was blown away by this novel. Donna Tartt has such a talent in her writing, so that every sentence is beautiful and captivating. Perhaps fittingly in a novel centered around pretentious liberal arts scholars, she expects the reader to be omnilingual and refuses to translate any of the many Greek interjections in the narrative. Luckily, if you’re reading the book you can just look up the phrase and it’ll probably bring you to a page full of translations just for The Secret History.
Tartt’s sophisticated prose is such a joy to read. Her novel is over 500 pages detailing the events of just a couple years, but it seems at once fast-paced and detailed. It’s certainly deserving of all the credit it gets as a modern classic, and I might call it the best psychological thriller I’ve ever read. Which, honestly, is not surprising, coming from Donna Tartt. The Goldfinch was also one of the best books I’ve ever read, and the dreariness and pessimism of The Secret History, I bet, will stay with me for a long time.
In short, 5/5 stars (worms? Do we still do that here?)