Friday, February 12, 2021

Book Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt


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 


I think as readers when we pick up a new book and begin reading the front pages, we are hoping that the book we are holding in our hands will be the one. The one book that will be listed as our favorite. But have you ever had to kick yourself because that book had actually set on your TBR shelf for a couple of years, being passed up like a small kid in an elementary gym class time after time? This was what had happened with The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I always seemed to have an excuse in my head when scanning over my shelf to pick my books for the month…I need to read this or that because it is coming out soon. Did I really want to take on a story about Classical Lit students at an elite Eastern College? And the number one reason, at more than 500 pages, it was a bit longer than most books I read, and I am a card-carrying member of the slow readers club.

What changed and made me pick it up? This year, with the exception of BOTM, I am trying to not buy books. My TBR shelf is overloaded and at the moment I am getting plenty from publishers to keep me busy during the month, so what the heck, let's read The Secret History..finally.

The book starts with a murder... you even know who has committed the murder, but you do not know why. The story takes you back to the first of the school year, you meet the main players in the story, 5 students that are studying Greek and a small college in Vermont.  In the first part of the book, you are getting to know the characters, just as they are getting to know each other, learning to trust or not trust each other. They face a tragedy together that will ultimately lead to the murder.  And while it was a bit strange reading one half of a more than 500-page book knowing that at the end a murder would take place, the story twists and weaves and surprises you, as well at times shocks you. 

The characters are different, and of course, they all have secrets. They feel immortal almost, the way they are so proper, almost from a bygone era. They are highly intelligent, well-spoken, and very pretentious. They are not perfect, they have addictions that they don’t even notice. Cigarettes, one too many cocktails. To them this is normal, it is how their lives are normally lived. They are also devious. I am not even sure if they are likable, but the trauma they face is raw, and you feel it, sometimes more than they seem to.

While I think the first part of the book is interesting and I enjoyed the relationships of the characters and getting to know them, I imagine some people would find it slow, and if you are one of those, I recommend staying with it, as it is worth it in the end. Part two of the book deals with the chaotic aftermath of the murder, and can at times put you on edge. 

The second part of the book is where Tartt’s writing shines. It is beautiful all through the book, but her world and character-building here are exceptional. She builds a world few of us will ever actually know, and lets us feel part of it, even at times when we don’t want to feel that way. She sprinkles in classical languages and literature, giving it a mysterious feel, but by doing so, she also gives you the feeling of being among the players, the preverbal fly on the wall I suppose.

I absolutely adored this book, and it now has the ranking of one of the few books I call “ my favorite “. I imagine picking it up again at some point and revisiting it. It was dark, and classic, a modern masterpiece and it is a book that will stay with me for quite some time.

"It's a very Greek idea and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves? Euripides speaks of the Maenads: head thrown I back, throat to the stars, "more like deer than human being." To be absolutely free! One is quite capable, of course, of working out these destructive passions in more vulgar and less efficient ways. But how glorious to release them in a single burst! To sing, to scream, to dance barefoot in the woods in the dead of night, with no more awareness of mortality than an animal! These are powerful mysteries. The bellowing of bulls. Springs of honey bubbling from the ground. If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn."....The Secret History 

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