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Book Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Book Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

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I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to appropriately convey how I feel about this book. The Secret History is Donna Tartt’s first novel, but I actually read her most recent book The Goldfinch first. The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer in 2014, but I felt meh about it. But I had heard that people who didn’t love The Goldfinch should still read The Secret History because it was different in a charming way. And I am so glad that I did read it because I loved The Secret History. I have always had an affinity for books (and movies) that take place at boarding schools or colleges (I’m looking at you, Prep and Dead Poets Society), so this one was right in my wheelhouse.

Richard Papen, the narrator, enrolls at Hampden College in Vermont as a scholarship student from California. He quickly creates a false narrative for himself, trading in his actual upbringing of his father’s work at a gas station and growing up in a tract house, in favor for a privileged life filled with palm trees and Hollywood parties. Most of the students at Hampden come from money and are all happy to spend it freely, so Richard tries to fit in as much as possible, spending the little money he has on clothes. Richard had taken two years of Greek at his previous school, so he wants to continue taking Greek at Hampden. But that class is taught by Julian Morrow, a renowned classicist, who only takes a handful of students. Richard is determined to become one of these chosen students, and finally manages to convince Julian to let him in.

Julian's group is an eclectic mix of students, who drink a lot and hero worship him. Henry, the serious and intense one, is the leader of the group, while Francis is less intense than Henry and has childish tendencies. Charles and Camilla are twins and mysteriously close. Henry and Francis are ridiculously wealthy, while the twins are orphans but do have some trust money. Then there’s Bunny, the odd man out. He is the one that is always borrowing money from the others, is the most outgoing, and has the most contact outside of the Classics group. Richard is instantly drawn to this exclusive group and finds himself wanting to do whatever it takes to please them. Even as he becomes friends with them, he still remains an outsider to the group. 

One night, Henry, Francis, Charles, and Camilla hold a Dionysian rite, basically attempting to divine with the Greek gods. Things get out of control, and somehow they kill a local farmer. Bunny is upset when he finds outs, not because someone died, but because he was not a part of the night. As Bunny becomes more vocal and agitated, he begins to make comments in public situations, and the group worries that he might out them. So naturally they decide to kill Bunny. This is not a spoiler; you learn this literally on page one of the book.

It has been several days since I finished The Secret History, and I still cannot find the right words to convey how I feel about it. These characters are deeply flawed and not at all likeable, but there is something about the story that still pulls you in. The Secret History is a perfect fall read; the way Tartt writes the town of Hampden and the college makes me want to take a trip to Vermont. I read several reviews of this book to try and get a better sense of how to convey how this book made me feel. On The Ardent Biblio, the reviewer calls The Secret History an “atmospheric” novel. I think that is the best way to describe this book. There is just something about it that makes you love it, in spite of the horrible acts and characters. I give it 5 stars. All I can say is read it!

Let me know what you thought about The Secret History or The Goldfinch.

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