review: the secret history by donna tartt

Published: September 29th 1996 by Ballantine Books
Genres & Keywords: fiction, contemporary, thriller, mystery
Rating: ★★★★★
Works From Author: The Goldfinch, The Little Friend, A Christmas Pageant, The Ambush

Amazon | Barnes & Nobles | Goodreads

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.


“But how,” said Charles, who was close to tears, “how can you possibly justify cold-blooded murder?’
Henry lit a cigarette. “I prefer to think of it,” he had said, “as redistribution of matter.”


“I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.”


I’m still in limbo after finishing this book. Honestly, I don’t know what I was expecting from The Secret History. This is one of those books were you finish the last page, put it down, and don’t know what to do with yourself.

But walking through it all was one thing; walking away, unfortunately, has proved to be quite another, and though once I though I had left that ravin forever on an April afternoon long ago, now I’m not so sure.


This book consumed my every thought. Which says a lot, seeing as it took me a looooongggg time to finish it. Life was constantly butting in which made it really hard to cut out some time to finish this book. But even with the huge breaks I had, I still wanted to come back to it. I couldn’t think about anything else but this book. I was working and thinking about this book, eating and thinking about it, trying to sleep and still thinking about it. Those are the best kind of stories, in my opinion.

Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.

So, what the hell is this about? For those who want to go in completely blind, I’ve tagged the description (this can all be found in the synopsis) Just to summarize: Richard moves from California to Vermont to attend Hampden College. Here he meets a group of misfit classic lovers and decides to join their ranks. This group is keeping a few secrets, though, one being a murder they committed during a Bacchian rite . It really isn’t about what happens, but how it happens. If that makes any sense.

And what I described isn’t all that goes on. At all. There is so much more to this book.

I knew the gist of the book going in from seeing countless reviews and having friends talk about it, but seeing how everything unravels is what made the book so interesting. Everything builds on itself. The plot, characters . . . it all continues to develop and progress to make a really realistic story despite some supernatural-isa elements.

It is long, though. And although I wouldn’t say it’s slow, Donna Tartt takes her time building the story. If you’re used to things developing one after the other with no breaks in between then this is going to be a huge shift in pace. I can see how some would say it’s boring, or the characters are flavorless, but it suited what I wanted perfectly. And, wow can Donna Tartt write. Just scroll some of the quotes and you’ll definitely see what I’m talking about.

“There is nothing wrong with the love of Beauty. But Beauty – unless she is wed to something more meaningful – is always superficial.”


I don’t even know how to describe how wonderfully this book unfolded. The need, desperation, paranoia . . . by the end I was sweating for these guys.

“Are you happy here?” I said at last.
He considered this for a moment. “Not particularly,” he said. “But you’re not very happy where you are, either.”
The characters in The Secret History were gray, which completely sucks as a description on my part. These are boys that have committed some atrocious acts. And, in a way, their suffering was completely called for. However, you begin to grow attached to them, even though you know they’re far from good. Each one of them had faults that eventually led them to their path (hubris, a wonderful word a was reacquainted with while reading this book), but at the very least I was able to understand why they did the things they did. Kinda.

“Some things are too terrible to grasp at once. Other things – naked, sputtering, indelible in their horror – are too terrible to really grasp ever at all. It is only later, in solitude, in memory that the realization dawns: when the ashes are cold; when the mourners have departed; when one looks around and finds oneself – quite to one’s surprise – in an entirely different world.”

(aaaannnddd the most vague description of the characters and that could have possibly been though up goes to . . . me!).

Anyway, before I make an even bigger mess of this review, all I have left to say is, if you’re up to it, definitely give this book a shot. It’s worth all 559 densely packed pages.

“In short: I felt my existence was tainted, in some subtle but essential way.”




2 thoughts on “review: the secret history by donna tartt

  1. I remember that after reading this review of yours on Goodreads for the first time, I run to my library to check if it was available. It wasnt so I booked it. This reminds me that I should check a status of my reservation 🙂 I so cannot wait to read this book. Excellent superb review!

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