Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” feels like a 30-minute walk on a treadmill with the incline set to max. Is it fun? No. Does everyone tell you that you just have to try it? Yes. Is there a slight rush of endorphins afterward that makes you rethink your earlier hatred of it? Yeah, unfortunately.
But now that it’s been a few days since I finished the novel, and the endorphins have gone away, I’ve come to a conclusion: I have never read such a disrespectful book.
“The Secret History” is so self-aware that its self-awareness actually loops back around to become self-ignorance. I have, for the past six months, opened the book periodically and read 20 or so pages, thinking I was finally getting somewhere with it, before closing it again in frustration. It is insufferable.
And you might wonder why I’m reviewing this book now, 31 years after it was first published. I’ll tell you. It’s because two out of every 10 posts my books-focused Instagram algorithm shoves down my throat have a caption like, “Ten Books You HAVE to Read in 2023: ‘The Secret History,’” or, “Dark Academia lovers, I have the perfect book for you!”
And I want to be an up-to-date, informed reader. I want to feel that seductive rush of smug pride when someone mentions a popular book in conversation and I’ve read it cover to cover. So, on a seven-hour flight to Amsterdam last August, I pulled a used, deceptively slim copy of “The Secret History” out of my backpack and set to work.
I was enchanted. I admit that the novel opens in such gorgeous, immediate, clear prose that criticizing the book as a whole feels somewhat monstrous. Here’s the first sentence: “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.”
The drama. The intrigue. The cruel deception of it. Tartt tells us the secret, as it were, on the very first page. It’s a wonderful introduction to the voice and vibes of the story. My head bent over the seatback table, the reading light annoying my neighbor, I devoured the first fifty pages. Then a flight attendant came around with a tray of cookies, and, not wanting to get crumbs in the spine of my book, I started watching “The Office” on a screen a couple of rows ahead of me.
If I could go back in time, I’d spill a thousand crumbs between the pages of “The Secret History.” Maybe it was the fact that I didn’t sleep for either that first seven-hour flight or the following hour-and-a-half flight to Edinburgh, but I was hooked on the first hundred pages of the novel. Jet-lagged and hungry, the drugged-out and three-piece-suited ambience of Hampden College dazzled me. I would’ve called the plot patient, had I started writing a review of the book then and there.
But I didn’t. My family passed out the second we got to the hotel room in Edinburgh, so I went to a museum by myself. I sat in a bright, glass-walled cafeteria with some coffee and opened the book again, read two or three pages, closed it, and didn’t touch it again for two months.
You’ll quickly realize as you read “The Secret History” that it is devoid of character. There’s plenty of personality, Tartt makes sure of that, but the people are not people. The dialogue feels natural, the heavy style feels settled, but there’s nothing going on beneath the surface.
Which is not to say there’s no plot. There’s actually quite a simple and elegant plot in the novel, and it suits the characters well. We follow Richard, a transfer student to Hampden College in Vermont, as he falls in love with a group of students studying classics: Henry, the brooding and intelligent leader; Camilla and Charles, the beautiful twins; Francis, whose character trait is that he’s gay and Bunny, confident, witless, chummy. All are rich, except Bunny, and all are smart, except Bunny.
Their enigmatic professor, Julian, who I unfortunately share a name with, teaches with a certain romanticism. Richard becomes a member of the group, but his new friends have a sinister lilt about them. The others, excluding Bunny, have been going out at night to perform some Dionysian rituals inspired by their Greek fascinations. Read: getting plastered, dancing around the woods and having orgies, trying to obtain some sort of ascendance. We’ve all been there. But on one of these excursions, in their veritable ecstasy, the gang kills a man. They wake up to find the body of an innocent farmer bloodied and lifeless, but with no memory of the murder.
They try to cover it up, fearing that Bunny would blab if he found out. Henry takes Bunny on a trip to Rome to keep him happy, but Bunny learns of the incident. Henry convinces the others to kill him. On a spring day, they push him off a cliff.
This happens 270 pages into the book. The plot is finished, wrapped up. It’s even overstayed its welcome a little.
Then there are 300 more pages.
Nothing, and I cannot emphasize this enough, nothing happens in those 300 pages. There’s an investigation by the police into Bunny’s death, but nothing comes of it. There’s a 70-page section where the gang goes to Bunny’s funeral. Then someone else dies in the last few pages, but for basically no reason. I was so fed up with the book by that point that I do not count it as plot.
Here, I’ll give an example of how disrespectful the book is to the reader’s time. During the funeral section, Richard finds out that Henry is having a migraine, but has run out of his meds. So Richard looks through Bunny’s family’s house, steals some downers from his mom’s medicine cabinet, and brings them to Henry. This takes seven pages.
It’s as if an editor read the first half of the manuscript, fell asleep on their couch, woke up, thought they’d finished it and just sent it to the printer. You’d think that Tartt uses that second half to do something, right? There’s just been a murder, maybe she could reflect on some deeper ideas about friendship or adolescence or the brevity of life — sorry, those are way above this book’s pay grade.
Instead, Tartt fills these pages with passages like this: “The girl was pretty, the bright-eyed, ebullient type I always go for. She struck up a conversation, and I could have gone home with her; but it was enough just to flirt, in the tender uncertain way tragic characters do in films … and have the pleasure of watching the stars of empathy bloom in her kind eyes; feeling her sweet wish to rescue me from myself … knowing that if I wanted to go home with her, I could.”
The scenes are well paced and the narration is mostly smooth and engaging. Then there are inexplicable moments: “I felt a fierce, nearly irresistible desire to seize Camilla by her bruised wrist, twist her arm behind her back until she cried out, throw her on my bed…”
Am I supposed to empathize with this narrator? I’d be very worried if I did.
On page 460, we get possibly the first actual emotional development of the entire novel, as Richard realizes that he’s bound to this group he once idolized because they did a murder together: “Now it made me sick, knowing there was no way out. I was stuck with them, with all of them, for good.”
Too little, too late. And it brings me back to my earlier point, that these really aren’t characters. Aside from Henry, none of them really make any decisions. They complain constantly. They have no real beliefs to speak of. They mostly feel cool and blasé, but Tartt doesn’t build anything off of that veneer.
That’s possibly because Tartt was just trying to capture the mood of her peers at Bennington College, her alma mater, as detailed in Lili Anolik’s brilliant podcast “Once Upon a Time at Bennington College” — a better use of your time than reading this novel.
I do feel guilty as I write this review, because there are moments of beauty in “The Secret History” that almost make it worth the slog: “He never lived to see them bloom, it occurs to me, those roses that smelled like raspberries.”
The opening is spectacular, the first half engaging, and the epilogue quite sweet. Tartt dialed in the vibes so perfectly she convinced an entire generation of readers that “The Secret History” is a masterpiece. But vibes alone do not a novel make.
You’ll hear from me again once I’ve suffered through “The Goldfinch.”
Daily Arts Writer Julian Wray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.