The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The darkness of human nature is no secret. 

About 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.

My two cents

This book opens with a rather nonchalant revelation: a murder has been committed. Names, circumstances, details. Naturally, now I want to know whodunit!

The story trots out with Richard Papen narrating, with his recollection of how he made it into Hampden College. Pretty much directionless, he applies for the college because he finds the brochure "nice" and with little support from his parents, he heads out to New England. Being quite smart, Richard becomes fixated on a clique of eccentric students who were taken under the wing of yet an even more eccentric classics professor. He finds himself aspiring to join the group, and by way of unusual methods, he becomes one of "them."

Richard unwittingly finds himself drawn obsessively in the study of ancient Greece, dead languages, mythology ... and increasingly isolated from the typical college scene. His world soon revolves around his group: Henry, Bunny, Francis, twins Camilla and Charles, and their instructor-mentor Julian. By appearances, they are a cultured elite. But there is much to be revealed in this odd cast of characters.

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Talk about preconceived notions! I don't know why I got the impression that this was a Greek mythological tale (think The Song of Achilles) or a Dan Brownish mystery on Greek mythology. But hey, while there is a largely Greek mythology influence to this, this is a deeper, darker, psychological thriller than I could have imagined. I mean this in the most complimentary way.

I personally loved these aspects of the book and can see why this book appeals to so many:

The plot seemed straightforward but it is anything but. The opening is strange. We know a murder has been committed; we know that Bunny is dead; we know that Henry is involved. Yes, this is a whodunit but all that will race through your mind is "why?"

Controlled tension. The overall darkness of human nature makes for a atmospheric goth atmosphere. Coupled with the slow reveal, in characters and in plot, I sometimes felt like something was going to snap.

Characters who are so much more than what they seem. With the exception of Richard Papen, the true nature of the characters slowly unfold as the story is told. Sophisticated college students with an inexplicable fondness for ancient Greece have flaws that surface in the most surprising ways. This kept me double guessing the characters. I slowly discovered that the seeming refinement covered up problematic young adults with silly affectations, pill-popping tendencies and ridiculous trust funds. My fondness turned to animosity for some of these characters!

This is a rather complex psychological study of a clique bordering on cultic tendencies, of spoiled rich brats who have a limited worldview and are trying to find meaning in their lives. Which is why Richard doesn't quite fit in; but then, he rather does. Then take Henry who I found inexplicably aloof, who made me wonder what his backstory was, and just as I was starting to believe he was the good guy ... bam!

The characters are what made this novel for me. Hearing about the characters through Richard's rose- coloured glasses and then the slow revelation was fascinating: from naive to reaching the proverbial crossroads and eventually crossing that line into amorality and perversity.

Classic themes: exploring the darkness of human nature. The bandwagon effect or mob mentality, the psychology of a murderer and the utter lack of remorse, amorality, redemption? This novel's exploration of these themes will surely make this outlast many other novels out there.

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Sidenote on the cover: Interestingly, when I featured this book on Friday 56/Book Beginnings, people commented that the cover was boring. The cover actually was one of the first things that I loved about the book because it felt so understated and beautiful. That cover just screams of ancient Greece to me, which of course is what the poor characters were obsessed about in the book. The book designer is Chip Kidd who I came across in this funnily enlightening TED Talk.


Uh ohs

I have to admit that the ancient Greek side didn't really hold my attention as much as I'd hoped. Much of it flew over my head although there were certain moments that I loved how the Greek references played itself out in the characters' actions. 

The title also doesn't do much for me. It still makes me wonder still what the "secret history" is although I can conjecture myself blue in the face.

Verdict: I highly recommend this novel for its unique exploration of the darkness and perversity of human nature through its clique of ancient Greece scholars. This psychological mystery is chilling, disturbing, and oh-so-hard to put down. The hype is well deserved; go get a copy!


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