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The Secret History

July 2, 2015

Eleanor came home from college with my copy of The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, which she’d been assigned for a class, and said I should read it because it was a page-turner and she’d finished it in one day. It took me a couple of days, what with kitten and kids and things, and near the end of it I was in a very irritable mood. It’s not a nice story, and they’re not nice people. They made me cross.

I was surprised to find myself so cross because, in addition to Eleanor, Ana and Jenny really like this book. Maybe I read it too long after college—it’s about college kids, and how they over-dramatize everything that happens to them. One of their friends annoys them and what do they decide to do? Do they invent a cruel nickname and talk about him, sometimes even in his presence, until he realizes he’s unwanted and slinks away? This is something I did as a college student, and still feel guilty about.

Okay, but I’m not being quite fair. The Secret History starts before the friend begins to annoy them. It starts with a group of Classics students deciding to run around and drink and take drugs and starve themselves until they call up Dionysus. The ambition reminds me of the way Julia and her cohort decide to summon a god in The Magician King. It’s always a bad idea to dabble in the supernatural just for fun. In this case, though, the danger is not from the god, but from their own frenzy. They kill a man, leaving themselves open for blackmail from the annoying friend, whose nickname is “Bunny.”

Most of the novel is about how bad they feel about killing Bunny, and I had very little sympathy for them so I just kept getting more annoyed. The characters are brilliantly drawn, though, even down to their habits of mind, as classicists:
“If the modern mind is whimsical and discursive, the classical mind is narrow, unhesitating, relentless. It is not a quality of intelligence that one encounters frequently these days. But though I can digress with the best of them, I am nothing in my soul if not obsessive.”

There’s a lot about regional and class differences between college students, since the main character, Richard, is not well off and from California, while he’s going to a small, select college in Vermont. He can always identify other Californians: “her voice was brusque with the staccato Californians sometimes affect when they’re trying too hard to be from New York, but there was a bright hard edge of that Golden State cheeriness, too. A cheerleader of the Damned.”

The richest and most studious of Richard’s group of Classics scholars is Henry, the leader. He says to Richard “You’re not very happy where you come from, are you?” and then “Don’t worry, you hide it very cleverly.” Richard thinks that “he said this without malice, without empathy, without even much in the way of interest. I was not even sure what he meant, but, for the first time, I had a glimmer of something I had not previously understood: why the others were all so fond of him. Grown children (an oxymoron, I realize) veer instinctively to extremes; the young scholar is much more a pedant than his older counterpart.”

The others in the group of scholars are Bunny, who has no money but expects his friends to buy him extravagant things, Francis, who is rich, and Charles and Camilla, who are twins. They all spend autumn weekends at the country home of Francis’ absent relative, where they drink and play croquet and go for long walks. Richard thinks of it as an almost perfect place. At one point they fantasize about living there together:
“The idea of living there, of not having to go back ever again to asphalt and shopping malls and modular furniture; of living there with Charles and Camilla and Henry and Francis and maybe even Bunny; of no one marrying or going home or getting a job in a town a thousand miles away or doing any of the traitorous things friends do after college; of everything remaining exactly as it was, that instant—the idea was so truly heavenly that I’m not sure I thought, even then, it would ever really happen, but I like to believe I did.”
For years after college, Ron and I and some of our friends would talk about designing a house where we could all live together, much like Richard’s fantasy. So far, all we’ve done is share beach houses.

But it turns out that while Richard was dreaming his pretty daydream about sharing a house with his friends, they were searching for ways to call Dionysus without including him. It’s not even clear, from what they say to Richard, whether they would ever have told him about killing a man in their Dionysian frenzy except for needing him to help keep Bunny from telling. Bunny, who was also excluded, only knows because he was waiting at Henry’s house the night they returned wearing bloody chitons, with Camilla unable to speak.

Richard tells some terrible stories about Bunny, like how he could zero in on a person’s insecurities. “Ruthless as a gun dog, he picked up with rapid and unflagging instinct the traces of everything in the world I was most insecure about, all the things I was in most agony to hide. There were certain repetitive, sadistic games he would play with me.” But none of the things Bunny does can justify the premeditated way they go about planning his murder. Henry tells Richard “I went out there today with a tape measure…The highest point is forty-eight feet, which should be ample.”

Part Two of the novel, in which Richard and his friends suffer the consequences of having killed their friend, is the part that irritated me most. They went into their Bacchanal and then into planning Bunny’s murder as if they were entitled to decide who gets to live and who has to die. Their arrogance doesn’t carry them through unscathed, and yet the denouement is less satisfying than if they were tormented by anything other than their own deficient consciences.

An interesting novel, but one I’m glad I have read, rather than one I enjoyed reading.

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29 Comments leave one →
  1. July 2, 2015 8:07 pm

    I loved this book when I read it. I couldn’t put it down and dropped everything to read it straight through. And yet I haven’t had a particular desire to reread it. Also, it is completely jumbled up in my head with Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, as there are similar contours to the stories. Someday I’ll read them again back to back.

    • July 5, 2015 10:18 pm

      Interesting–I loved Special Topics in Calamity Physics. It didn’t seem anywhere near as dark.

  2. July 2, 2015 9:23 pm

    Boy this just sounds wretched. Maybe it’s the kind of book that works only at the right time of your life? In which case, I think I missed my window.

    • July 5, 2015 10:19 pm

      It does seem to me, at least anecdotally, that most of the people who love this book read it when they were in or just fairly recently out of college.

  3. July 2, 2015 11:16 pm

    We read this a couple of years ago for our book group, and we all pretty much loved it, in spite of the despicable characters. I understand what you mean, though – I have no desire to read it again (whereas I could read The Goldfinch over and over.)

    • July 5, 2015 10:20 pm

      Well, that makes me look forward to reading The Goldfinch!

  4. July 2, 2015 11:34 pm

    Glad your young’un went to Grinnell, not Bennington, right?

    • July 5, 2015 10:20 pm

      Definitely! Although mostly she chose Grinnell because she wanted Kenyon without parents.

    • July 5, 2015 10:54 pm

      Bennington in the 1980s was Kenyon without parents but with murder!

      I first read Hugo maybe 5 years ago. What is this dogging on Hugo? He is one of the two or three greatest French poets.

      • July 6, 2015 7:47 am

        Oh, I meant The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables. I think they’re best read around the time one reads The Man in the Iron Mask, right before The Three Musketeers.

      • July 6, 2015 9:05 am

        All right, “best,” but adults who have not read Hugo should not hesitate. His novels will still be good enough.

  5. July 3, 2015 10:49 am

    I liked this book well enough, but I don’t understand why it’s the literary darling that it is. For one thing, it’s much too long for what it is. I kept thinking someone like Ruth Rendell could have handled this same story so much better. I read it in about a day and remember thinking afterward that if I’d read it slowly and taken time to really think about it, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much as I did.

    • July 5, 2015 10:21 pm

      It is interesting, in terms of narrative, since you know what happened from the very beginning.

  6. July 3, 2015 3:05 pm

    I crazy loved this book, even though I rarely enjoy books with protagonists and characters as unsympathetic as these ones were. But it was balanced out by my love of CLASSICS and also, stories where people have done something terrible and might get caught. Plus, I loved the ending. The ending is one of my all-time favorite book endings. It’s so low-key dark.

    • July 5, 2015 10:22 pm

      That might be part of what irritated me–that so much that seems to me, literally, life and death is regarded in a kind of low-key way.

  7. lemming permalink
    July 3, 2015 5:33 pm

    Not read the book, but think EJ might have a point about windows. I LOVED Les Mis (the show & the book) when I was in high school. A year ago I had to walk out of a production of Les Mis because I felt physically ill.

    • July 3, 2015 10:57 pm

      The Song of the Lark was transformative for me because I do think I read it at the right time. And I won’t read it again because I want it to stay that way for me in my memory.

    • July 5, 2015 10:24 pm

      I do believe there are books you love more if you read them at the right time. I’ve said before that I think if you read Victor Hugo when you’re much older than twelve, you won’t like it as much.

  8. July 4, 2015 1:17 pm

    It’s all about timing, isn’t it. I loved ‘The Secret History’ when I read it and have often been tempted to go back and re-read. Maybe it’s as well that I’ve never yet found the time.

    • July 5, 2015 10:25 pm

      Maybe it is just as well! I wouldn’t want to spend any more time with those characters, now that I know what they’re like.

  9. July 6, 2015 5:40 pm

    I have yet to read The Secret History and your review has not changed my mind that I will someday.
    I LOVED Les Mis; I read it when I was 16.

  10. Jenny permalink
    July 7, 2015 1:03 am

    I did not like The Secret History at all, for all the reasons you state here. I also thought the writing was so wrapped up in loving its own cleverness that I couldn’t get to the story (which is also how I felt about Special Topics in Calamity Physics, though.) I then tried The Little Friend and felt even grouchier about having read it. Donna Tartt is not for me.

    I completely disagree with you about Victor Hugo, though. I don’t think he’s best read at age twelve. I think Les Miserables (and others) are very good indeed. But then, I also think, say, Treasure Island and A High Wind in Jamaica are good books for grownups…

    • July 14, 2015 4:22 pm

      I may be overstating my case. I didn’t mean that adventure stories aren’t fun when a person is older, but that there’s a kind of excitement about reading them at a young age that’s hard to recapture. It’s like reading them as an adult requires some suspension of disbelief, whereas when you’re younger you take it all in open-mouthed.
      I’m flummoxed that several people have compared The Secret History to Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I loved Special Topics and didn’t think it was about the guilt of the murder friends in the same way.

  11. July 8, 2015 4:15 pm

    I read the book about ten years on a business trip that included a dull flight and really liked it. It was just so foreign and crazy to me and where I was and what I was doing that it became an interesting escape.

    • July 14, 2015 4:23 pm

      Hmm, maybe working at a small college makes me more skeptical about the story.

  12. July 15, 2015 2:40 pm

    I know this book has an almost cult like following but I’ve never read it.

    • July 15, 2015 4:45 pm

      Well, now you know more about it, should you ever pick it up.

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