The Secret History by Donna Tartt feels like a modern day roller coaster ride. The ride lands in the middle of a Grecian Classics novel. The book is part psychological thriller placed within a half dozen college students in a television show reminiscent of Real World. The Secret History is a large part commentary on the intrigues of manipulated and manipulating self-absorbed rich kids and insufficiently critical professors overly-focused more on their self-interested academic snobbery and interpersonal subterfuges than on who lives, who dies, and coming to account for firsthand roles in bringing about such life decisions; that is to say that the novel succeeds as a philosophical bildungsroman more focused on the dark underbelly of the ghastly indifference to the morality of it all than demonstrating how these characters decide how to engage or grow.
The Secret History did well at grabbing my attention early and keeping it throughout the novel; that is, pace was better for a first novel than in other first novels that I’ve read. The many allusions, both literary and classical throughout the book acknowledge an undergraduate’s comprehension of specifically Greek literature, and can potentially be distracting for some readers. The good news for some is that the book does not provide a deeper meaning to much of the referencing of these references. That is, the book offers some payoff at the end to the inclusion of the classical references, and that tie largely bears fruit in bonding this group of students, and their professor, with a sense of intimacy. The Secret History simply does not give the allusions a deeper context for those fluent in the texts being referenced.
Richard Pappin is the lonely narrator of the book. Much of what you see is through his eyes of his firsthand experience and, at times, uninformed incomprehension. To say that Pappin is an unreliable narrator would be unfair…the issues of Richard’s incomprehension owe largely to the information withheld by the likes of Henry, Francis, Charles, and others. It felt to me like the Richard offered legitimate context and insight at the relevant times. The proper understanding of him is as a young man aiming to develop what and how to feel and think in a trying time. Richard was drawn sympathetically, regardless of whether the reader should feel him worthy of that sympathy. My argument is that Tartt intends for you to consider both perspectives of this question.
A subject that I am still puzzling over for this book is the heavy focus on the concept of beauty. The story comes back to this frequently with some of the sexual intrigue among the main characters in addition to the thoughts of the charismatic professor, Julian Morrow. Morrow’s philosophy is criticized for being superficially focused on beauty, which is to say this focus should have been taken in service towards adding deeper focus as well. Answering much of the why do the murders indicated by the novel can come back to asking many questions about Julian’s motivations, actions, insights, and ultimately his lack of insight or actions aimed at bringing in a larger moral advocacy.
The Secret History raised worthwhile questions, and failed to resolve a few. The book further failed to address some practical questions that I’ve raised above, though I forgive the book on these scores for it was done with the license of serving a larger purpose of the storytelling. Overall, my grade is 4-stars out-of-5.
Matt – Saturday, March 18, 2017