Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History released in 1992, but it’s been popular recently. We stumbled upon this book online, which has high praise and a dedicated following. In fact, with the dark academia trend, The Secret History has become an important text. People are enthralled by the New England college setting, the group of classics students and the dark murder mystery plot.

Richard Papen wants to escape his mediocre life in California. When her receives a pamphlet from Hampden College in Vermont, Richard does whatever it takes to leave his hometown. When Richard arrives at Hampden, he wants to continue studying Greek. However, there is only one Greek professor and he rarely takes on new students. In fact, he only has five students. These students take the majority of their classes with Professor Julian Morrow, choosing to study classics and forgo a regular college experience.

When Richard is allowed into Julian’s world, he becomes closer with the five other students. But everything is not as it seems with his new friends, who tend to isolate from the rest of the student body. The story follows Richard, as he reflects on his life as a young adult starting college and how he and his new friends committed murder.

From the first page of The Secret History, Tartt tells the reader that one of the classics students, Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran, was murdered by his friends. While the description of the book doesn’t give the plot away, the reader understands that it’s a story about students at an elite school in the middle of nowhere and how their love of Greek history, myth and tragedy corrupted their morality.

It takes longer for the reader to fully learn about the rest of the characters. We eventually get introduced to Henry Winters, Francis Abernathy and the Macauley twins, Camilla and Charles.

At first, Henry comes off as quirky, intelligent and out of place in 1983. He acts like he would be much happier living centuries ago, choosing to read in Greek and write his diary in Latin. But as the story goes on, it’s obvious to the reader that the only person Henry cares about besides himself is Camilla. He shows sociopathic tendencies and chooses to live his life like he were the star of a Greek tragedy.

Francis, on the other hand, seems to be along for the ride in Bunny’s death. While he was all for it at first, Francis chooses to let Henry take the lead and after the fact, falls into a depression.

The twins have an interesting, close and sometimes gross relationship. Charles is introduced as the kindest of the classic students, but after the murder occurs and his drinking gets worse, he becomes more violent and erratic. Camilla being the only women of the group, is mostly noted for her ethereal beauty and cold demeanor. Multiple characters fall for Camilla during the story, including Richard and Henry. Her character seems to be a metaphor for Julian’s lessons on the dark side of beauty.

As for Julian, when we first started reading The Secret History, we wanted to know more about this charismatic and isolated man. We found it peculiar that he did not receive more page time. This doesn’t make sense until the end of the book, when the reader understands just how manipulative and egotistical this man could be.

Lastly, we get to Richard, who is an amazing narrator and that’s not because of his moral compass. Richard is unreliable at times, but that’s also what makes him self-aware. Confusing, right? What we mean by this is that Richard ends the book acknowledging his own bias and preconceived notions regarding the people in his life. He recognizes why he has certain feelings for his peers and understands where they were problematic/chose to use him.

While The Secret History is a murder mystery, it’s character driven instead of plot driven. Yes, there’s a murder, but the reader knows who is killed and who did it within the first two pages of the story. While it takes a while to learn the circumstances of the murder, it’s more about how the characters changed and regressed throughout the story.

We’re happy to report that this hyped up novel did not disappoint. The only criticism we have is that at times it was overly wordy and descriptive. Tartt could have been more concise. But besides that, we were pulled into the dark academia world of Hampden College and wanted to learn more about these morally ambiguous characters. It ended on a great note, with Richard telling us more about his life after Hampden College, where he reflects on his past and what happened to his former friends.

If you’ve heard about The Secret History and debated whether or not to pick it up, we recommend that you do. Just be warned that it is dark and might make you feel uncomfortable at times. But it’s also a powerful commentary on obsession.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5/⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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