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Five Things About THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt

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secret historyThis is going to be a difficult book for me to talk about. I finished it days ago but I find myself a little verklempt, I’ll admit. It’s been a long time since a book has stuck with me so completely as this one, and I say that having had a quite remarkable year for memorable reading. So, the summary is straightforward and completely unhelpful: a Californian boy arrives at a private New England college where he falls in with a bunch of snooty but delightful Classics majors who happen to have accidentally killed someone during a Bacchian rite they just happened to be conducting in their spare time. That is a totally truthful depiction of some of the events in the book, but it is not what the book is ABOUT. I will do my best to convince you to pick it up in other ways. Without further ado, here are five things about THE SECRET HISTORY.

1. This is not a new book. All of your friends have already read it. You probably already have a copy of it, actually, that you picked up at some point in the last decade, and now it molders in a box in your master bedroom closet, the one that you never unpacked last time you moved. Right next to your college alarm clock and two boxes of 9-volt batteries and that shirt you can’t throw out because it was a gift. The reason why I’m pointing out that it’s not a new book is because, since reading it, I’ve been told by several people that it is their Favorite Book Ever. It is one thing for you to read a book six months before and maintain it as a Favorite Book. It is something more remarkable when a book can elicit a passionate response from readers twenty years after its publication.

2. This book is full of terrible people. Pretty much the lot of the people that our narrator Richard meets are awful in some way. Self-centered or elitist or potheads or sociopathic or just people with really loud voices in quiet places. Even Richard is not exactly a great guy. But the magic of this novel is that, somehow, you find these terrible people deeply sympathetic. I need to go back and reread it to understand this strange enchantment. How do I find them so charming? Why do I want them to like Richard? GIVE ME YOUR SECRETS, BOOK.

3. This is not a whodunit. You are told pretty much the Bad Thing That Happens in the prologue, and you can see it coming like a comet for much of the book. The effect of this, however, is to create a lovely, unbearable tension and anticipation. And when the moment comes — in a line that involves ferns — it is so deliciously awful. I actually exhaled gloriously and put the book down for a moment because I was so delighted by the actual pay off.

4. It’s long. It’s over 200,000 words long, I think, and 600 pages in my edition. It took me five days to read it. And it’s not just long, it’s dense. One of the blurbs on the inside of the jacket said that it read like a 19th century novel, and I don’t think that’s at all unearned. It takes its time developing atmosphere and character quirks and some of the days in the novel take dozens of pages to unfold. It is not a novel to speed through. It’s a novel to get stuck in. I put it down when I got too tired, when I felt like I was starting to skim.

5. WHAT ELSE CAN I SAY? I adore the characters so much. I adore the hint —the breath — of the supernatural. I adore the slow, building tension and the sense that I, as a reader, was being skillfully manipulated. Yes, that. That last one. I think that is what I love the most about this novel. I get the idea that Donna Tartt was completely in control of this novel. Everything is measured and deliberate and just perfectly done, and I trust her entirely. Fifty pages in, I knew that she was going to tell me a story I was going to enjoy, even if I had no idea what it was going to be.

Man, I just am going to flail about some more. Go read it.

  • Yanicke Forfang

    Maggie, there is a YA version of this novel by Janice Harrell that follows the plot so closely its uncanny. But the story is changed slightly and of course adapted for teen readers. It is about a girl named Joanna who transfers to a new school and is immediately drawn into a mysterious group of kids that have a dark secret. It turns out there had been another member in the group but just before Joanna arrived she mysteriously went missing. Some say she ran away. Others speculate something more sinister. As Joanna is drawn deeper and deeper into the group she gradually learns the truth. I read this trilogy back in the 1990s and love it to this day. It’s out of print but definitely worth tracking down 🙂 its called The Secret Diaries by Janice Harrell and the first book is Temptation

    • I have very mixed feelings about reading a remix of this novel. I don’t mind homages, but retellings of anything but fairy tales weirds me out a bit. Especially when the original author is still alive . . . when is it an homage, and when is it plagiarism?

      • Yanicke Forfang

        Yeah that’s true. I read The Secret Diaries first and then discovered The Secret History many years later when someone on the internet mentioned the similarities. The Secret History came out first (in 1992) and then The Secret Diaries (in 1994) but the stories are so similar its hard to believe its a coincidence. Although I might be wrong. The only thing that strikes me as strange is that Janice Harrell has totally dropped off the radar. There is virtually nothing about her on the internet. Perhaps she got into trouble for plagiarising.

  • Beckie

    My word for the day – verklempt
    It’s good word, every once in a while I too, find myself verklempt. You totally have my curiosity peaked in your description of this book.
    Meanwhile perhaps I will clean out my closet of those unwanted things that just won’t go away. Some items have not seen light in six yrs (how long I’ve lived at my current address)

    • Verklempt is pretty much a perfect word for what it means. I can’t think of an English equivalent.

  • “A breath of the supernatural”…that is such a beautiful way of putting it. This, too, is one of my most favorite books ever, so captivating and hypnotic! It just pulls you right in with the atmosphere. And I loved the imagery of it: the campus, the way Camilla dressed, the forests. I’m surprised a movie version hasn’t come out yet, though I had heard Gwyneth Paltrow wanted to make it or something like that ages ago…

    • I heard that about Gwyneth Paltrow, too! Man, that would have been delightful. James Newton Howard could do the soundtrack . . .

  • Hi Maggie!
    I wonder if your wonderful books (I thougt of the shivertrilogy) will come on movie soon or sometime?
    It would be really great movies I think and I would see it a lot of times.
    Love Karin

  • Abby Cummins

    I also love The Secret History. I read it for the first time my freshman year of high school and I have revisited it ever since at least once a year, simply for the beauty of the language and the mastery of the plot. I think a lot of the magic of it is that, in all honesty, real people are often very unlikable. Yet, we still tend to spend our time with and to profess to enjoy unlikable people’s company. It’s one of those unanswered quirks that is so richly explored in literature, and especially well here. Tartt’s exceptionally unlikable characters are really not all that different from many people we know…or even ourselves in some regards if we really want to hold up that mirror. “The Little Friend,” also by Donna Tartt, is similarly affecting although atmospherically very different.

    • This is so very true — I was talking it over with Brenna Yovanoff, my critique partner, and we too arrived at this conclusion: people who are truly likable are impossible to find. And so many of us have friends that initially turned us off in one way or another. It’s seeing past the flaws to whatever bit of soul attracts us. Just . . . brilliant. I’ve ordered The Little Friend, too!

      • Ynez

        I really loved The Secret History and am considering reading The Little Friend. Would you recommend that book as well? I value your opinion and know that you have great taste in books considering the fact that you convinced me to read this AMAZINGLY FANTASTIC book!

    • You captured this book so perfectly, as did Maggie Stiefvater, and that’s no easy thing. I liked The Little Friend too but it’s very difficult to top the experience of reading Donna Tart for the first time.

  • This book resonated like a cello that is played in a large empty hall. It kept reverberating in my mind for days, weeks! What a masterful conception of an entourage of characters and their secret; we all want to know. Love this book!

    • It is STILL sticking with me, weeks later.

      • Ynez

        I expect the same for me. I also expect it to continue sticking with me for years to come…

  • I was first given this book by my mother saying to read it. “its great” I was told but i shunned it for a long time, for some reason I assumed it was about a group of nerds who calculated the perfect murder then tried to test it out. It is nothing like that, this book is perfect on so many levels, nothing I read comes close to it which although upsetting, also amazes me. I only want to read more books about these characters, I feel I know them and want to live like them, deeply touched. I have passed this book onto a friend recently but actually regret it, I want to re-read it instantly to grasp it again, hopefully understand it on another level. I have also became rather interested in the Greeks as of recently to…
    Great review also, couldnt have put it better myself. Which is why im glad you did

  • Excellent piece; I finished the book only thirty minutes ago and just felt it in my gut. Felt what, I hardly know, but the novel certainly hit me hard, hard enough that I found myself on Google at 4.30AM searching for articles, comment and others enchanted by this wonderful work of art.

    Your comments about the characters stuck with me. Although I generally have a leaning towards the narcotic loving semi-sociopathic characters that most seem to deplore, these characters were especially meaningful to me. Francis was the one that stuck out in my mind (and heart) for whatever reason; he seemed to have a magnetism, and was deeply flawed, in some ways the most tragic of all the people presented to us. I was drawn towards him and pleased indeed that he survived – although what he survived for, I can’t really say. His life seemed utterly joyless.

  • Mari Gallagher

    Just finished the rollercoaster trip that was Secret History and like others have googled articles & reviews to see if others have experienced what I have. What a story, the tension had me carrying the book around with me as I loaded the dishwasher and wrecked in the mornings from late night reading. And your review, Maggie, sums it all up beautifully! Already I’m imagining the movie…Mia Wasikowska as Camilla? Cillian Murphy as Henry? Joseph Gordon Levitt as Richard? Ian mcKellen as Julian?
    Although all the delicious language that so defined Tartt’s masterpiece might not translate into much of a screenplay methinks…
    As Francis might say “nihil sub sole novum”.

  • Anna

    My goodness, I have been having a difficult time getting over the remorse this novel shook into me so I am so glad I ran into this article. I might be a few years late, but your word still have the perfect effect in terms of seeing my feelings actually in words. Thank you.

Maggie Stiefvater
Hi, I'm Maggie Stiefvater

Professional novelist by day and artist by night. I live an eccentric life in the middle of nowhere, Virginia with my charmingly straight-laced husband, two kids, and neurotic dogs. I’m the author of the Books of Faerie (LAMENT and BALLAD); the bestselling SHIVER trilogy (SHIVER, LINGER, FOREVER), and THE SCORPIO RACES.

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