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on January 24, 2003
I bought this book because I read in Newsweek that it had a cult following. The cover of the book quotes reviews saying it is "impossible to leave alone until I finished" and that "the pages beg to be turned." Unfortunately, I didn't find it to be so exciting. The prologue reveals that the Hampden College students in the book will kill a fellow student named Bunny. Then, Richard Papen, the narrator, begins the story telling how he got to Hampden and how became one of the group of students studying Greek exclusively under a professor named Julian Morrow. The story of how the murder occurred and what happened in its aftermath unfolds. The narrator presents the turns and twists of the story unemotionally so that the driving force of the book is more the weirdness of the relationships that have developed between the students than it is actual events. I never felt emotionally attached to the characters, connected to any guilt they may have felt, or concerned about their fates. I experienced the novel with a complacency that allowed me to "leave [it] alone" numerous times. I will say that the narrator describes the New England surroundings and the college's atmosphere with a vividness. The word choices are more lyrical and intellectual than your typical pop-culture book. Despite this, I feel the writing style was less challenging than _Harper's Magazine_. I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone, but if you're interested in it, I suggest you read it for yourself to see if you agree with me.
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on May 11, 2005
When we think of murder, we almost without exception regard it as a profoundly unethical, inhumane and immoral act. But even so, murders do occur, and consequently we often consider those who have committed murder as, in a fundamental way, different from those who have not, and explaining them being able to commit such horrible acts by thinking of them as abnormal or just plain insane.
In Donna Tartts The Secret History another explanation to murder is offered. Tartt refuses to portray the act of murder as a consequences of one single decision or motive, but instead tries to reveal those psychological mechanism that make murder possible; it is with far reaching insights, and a great sense of detail that she shows that no one step in the chain is larger than the other. Once the unthinkable becomes thinkable, it is close to become an option, and once an option, it is not far from deliberated, and then we are well on the way to the act itself. Tartt shows murder to be something banal, and that is what makes her book so relevant, and at the same time so disturbing, because once in face of this conclusion about murder, the distance between those who are able to commit it, and those who are not, vanishes; it is not a criminal mind that makes a murderer, it is circumstances, and once in such circumstances there is nothing that reveals them to be out of the ordinary.
So now you know someone is going to be murdered even before you have opened the book. But don't despair, Tartt were not trying to hold you in suspense about what was going to happen, the murder is a given from the get-go. Instead she sets out to do something much more difficult; to portray an answer to the question WHY a murder took place at all. What makes The Secret History so engaging, so thought provoking, is that Tartt takes this task seriously, and actually manages to accomplish what she set out to do. A great read, but try it for yourself! Pick up a copy! Another book I need to recommend -- completely unrelated to Heller, but very much on my mind since I purchased a "used" copy off Amazon is "The Losers' Club: Complete Restored Edition," a funny, highly entertaining little novel I can't stop thinking about.
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on March 12, 2003
Since I'm so late to the game with regards to Donna Tartt's hit novel "The Secret History", I'll just try to list the things I found striking about the book, both positive and negative:
1) The author is clearly knowledgeable about ancient Greek, and conveys some of the power and expressiveness inherent in the language (or so I imagine -- I never studied it myself, but I would like to after reading this book).
2) "The Secret History" is definitely a page-turner. I read it in a mad frenzy over three days. I think the author "cheated" to keep my interest though -- clues to the plot are parcelled out quite parsimoniously and the reader is forced to share the confusion and gradual dawning of the narrator. It's well done but frustrating; the epicenter of my annoyance lies with the character of Henry, who is inscrutable and enigmatic throughout. The novel might have been less exciting without this haze thrown over the main characters' motivations, but it seems kind of cheap to build suspense by teasing the reader with half-heard conversations and veiled comments all the time.
3) The characters are drawn quickly and convincingly, but not fleshed out as much as I'd expect from such an ambitious novel. Otherwise I think the author's writing style is very good -- some nice turns of phrase but still very readable and not show-offy. Some reviewers here have complained about the brief bits of non-English dialogue. There are a few times when it's not translated, but they were rare enough not to bother me.
4) You can definitely guess what kind of college life the author had from "The Secret History". In the book she mercilessly stereotypes vapid cokeheads, aggressive party boys and loopy hippies. The main characters, a group of six students studying ancient Greek and the classics together, are very segregated from their schoolmates and the outside world.
5) If I drank as much and slept as little in college as the characters in this book, I don't think that I'd have had the stamina to graduate. Otherwise, the novel progresses pretty plausibly, reminding me of the movie "The Simple Plan": A seemingly simple situation grows more and more thorny as the tension escalates and the students take actions that seem reasonable at the time, but have unintended consequences.
All in all it was a good read. I especially enjoyed that it got me excited about the classics -- Now I wish I had the time, talent, and energy to learn ancient Greek.
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Earlier this year I read The Goldfinch and was astounded. It was my first novel by the author and I was pleased it won the Pulitzer. So I decided to go back and give her first novel a try. The Secret History is dark and brooding in plot, dense and suffocating in atmosphere. The novel has been called a "whydoit" as it reveals the crime and criminals from the outset. That device and the characters representing modern archetypes makes the book highly engaging. I found the group of college students entirely menacing in their intellectual detachment and arrogant entitlement.

There is more than a bit of Leopold and Loeb throughout. Consider this exchange, “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.” Soon actions haunt all involved and their tell-tale hearts take many forms offering fascinating views of individual and group behaviour.

In 2013, John Mullan wrote "Ten reasons why we love Donna Tartt's The Secret History" in The Guardian. Mullan included in the list, "It starts with a murder", "It has all the best elements of the campus novel", and "It is obsessed with beauty." Indeed, there are many references to beauty, "Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.” Tartt teaches us that beauty is most definitely in the eye of the beholder given what her characters find beautiful.

The book is thick with complex observations and challenging thoughts, "For if the modern mind is whimsical and discursive, the classical mind is narrow, unhesitating, relentless. It is not a quality of intelligence that one encounters frequently these days. But though I can digress with the best of them, I am nothing in my soul if not obsessive."

Yet, at its core this is a horror story. One that creatively expresses fear, “There was a horrible, erratic thumping in my chest, as if a large bird was trapped inside my ribcage and beating itself to death." And, more disturbingly, it shows a calm and calculating student growing increasingly comfortable with murder, “A month or two before, I would have been appalled at the idea of any murder at all. But that Sunday afternoon, as I actually stood watching one, it seemed the easiest thing in the world.”
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on May 5, 2003
Although I agree that Tartt has facility with the language--her imagery is often strong and imaginative, and her prose has a nice rhythmic quality to it--she seems to fall prey to some of the errors that new writers often struggle with. First of all, the characters are not very believable. I spent a good portion of my reading time willing myself to suspend my disbelief and go with the story as she's laid it out. Am I to believe that the son of two high school drop-outs, an average and not very well read high school student, suddenly morphs into this guy who sounds like a turn of the century prep-schooler simply because he has a passing interest in Greek? Am I to believe that Bunny, this popular, slightly learning disabled, jocular guy really goes around using words like "chap" and "chum" in a modern American college setting without having any social ramifications for it? (The other characters, supposedly, are stranger than Bunny--he's the "mainstream" one.) And, speaking of setting, where am I, exactly, in time?? Because of fleeting references to spandex and Jane Fonda I assume I'm supposed to be in the 80s, but so much of what the characters do and say belie this. I understand that people can get all caught up in "their own little world"--be it computer addicts or hockey players--seemingly oblivious to the world outside, but the fact that Richard, a formerly ordinary suburban Californian, suddenly acts and talks and eats like a person out of the 19th century was a little hard to buy.
Donna Tartt has some talent. But this book has some major holes in character development and motivation and has serious issues placing the setting solidly in a given time period, and these two major flaws distracted me from enjoying the writing and the plot. Although this book offers us a writer with promise, it does not live up to the glowing reviews I've read. Don't be fooled by a writer's ability to sling around some Greek phrases. Character and setting are infinitely more important when crafting a piece of fiction.
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on January 15, 2003
This book is worth reading, but don't set your expectations too high. I wanted to like this book. The reviews and summaries were compelling - Greek students performing ancient rites, a secret society, a bit of mystery topped off with a murder. This was something I couldn't pass up.
I really did want to like this book.
The premise of this book held promise, and unlike other reviewers, I didn't think the beginning was too slow. I was willing to be patient, I was willing to allow Tartt the freedom to develop the characters and establish the scene. And from time to time, I was rewarded. There are some wonderfully written passages in this novel, and I did find a couple of the characters likable. Unfortunately, though, Tartt's flashes of brilliance were usually followed by stumbling blocks of cliches. One moment I would find myself awed by her words, the next moment would find me with my head dropped in disappointment wondering if she bothered to proofread her own work.
I thought the main character was too passive a participant and not interesting at all. Yes, maybe that is who he was supposed to be, but I found myself not caring what happened to him. Usually a passive, unmotivated character kills a novel, and in this case, he nearly did. His actions became increasingly difficult to believe, especially during the winter break when he didn't have the common sense to leave the warehouse where he lived - a room with a hole in the roof that allowed snow to fall into drifts in his room. I can only imagine that Tartt was trying to be purposely cryptic and symbolic here, because for the life of me, I can figure out no other reason why the character would put up with this.

Bunny (the victim as revealed on page one) was the most annoying character I've read in fiction in a while - I'm surprised he lasted as long as he did - which brings up another issue. I had a hard time believing that a person despised this much by everyone around him was allowed into the "circle." He freely spent their money, verbally abused them, and lived off their family in some cases, yet the group felt protective of him for no given reason. Tartt attempted to explain that there was some portion of Bunny's personality that people found mysteriously attractive, but instead of showing us that and allowing the reader to find that same aspect attractive, thereby allowing the reader to sympathize with the other characters' feelings, she merely told us this attractiveness existed.
And while I've lived the college town life and can personally vouch for the experience of being treated differently than a local, Tartt seems to take it to the extreme here. She inconsistently paints this town, one moment it seems like 1950's America with all the typical attitudes, the next moment the town is modern with obvious references to recent lifestyles. I'm not sure if this was intentional, or something Tartt overlooked.
I was disappointed in Tartt's succumbing to the temptation of making incest as the big secret between twin brother and sister. This is more of a cliché than I think most people realize. Brother and sister twins frequently have to field "jokes" from friends concerning their sexual habits, and for Tartt to include that was just another cliché to throw on the large pile she had already built.
What I did enjoy about this novel was what it revealed about our mentors, heroes, and role-models - that they're human. And sometimes as we look up at them, we make them more than they really are. Then faced with a real-life crisis, we learn their faults at a time when we need them to be their strongest. Sometimes those role-models betray us. Unfortunately, this is only briefly revealed near the end of the novel and not fully developed.
Overall, I would recommend reading this book, not because some claim it will one day be a classical, and not because it's a particularly compelling story, but because there are glimpses of what Tartt can become with more experience under her belt.
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on May 9, 2004
At this point it is no secret that Donna Tartt's debut "The Secret History" is one of the best debuts in the recent history, writing with authority, she is able to take her characters and readers downer and downer. Knowing the metié that she's writing about, the writer is able to develop a dreamy atmosphere where everything is possible. And that's why nothing seems gratuitous.
Besides this talent, Tartt has an ability to full develop her characters. Not one of them seems to be inhuman or fake. Actually every one really seems to have a soul and a heart beating in their chests. The group of students alone is subject for many theses, with each one bearing a meaning and a concept.
"The Secret History" is not the average thriller. It is far above it. Mixing the whodunit concept with high doses of Greek culture --mostly philosophy-- Tartt wrote an intellectual novel that really works. It is far beyond your crime driven novel, "History" stands a new patter, that some has been --and will -- try to copy and failed --mostly because the writer here is impossible to copy. She has a particular style, which switches from beauty to horror and vice versa in the change of paragraph.
"The Secret History" may not please everyone --many may find Tartt's prose is pretentious or something -- but the truth is it is beauty and certainly there is a segment of readers that don't mind a little style and philosophy in their 'thrillers'.
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on February 27, 2003
Despite myself, I found "The Secret History" very engaging. The plot was unique and intriguing. And the novel was very "atmospheric".
Tartt's blatant attempt to write like an 18th centure novelist was cloying. Her use of stilted , early-20th century lingo ("old chap"?) was annoying. The novel takes place in the 1980s, so why use dialogue that sounds like it came straight out of "The Great Gatsby" (regardless of the desperate "Gatsby" allusions thoughout the book)?
The characters are not only under-developed, but preciously unbelievable. Do you know any college students who take baths instead of showers? And who wear suits and ties at all times? And who are constantly eating lamb chops? Please! And the Classics Professor Julian? I find it highly unbelievable that any college or university would tolerate his little "school within the school".
I'm not sure if I was supposed to be sympathetic or attracted to the main characters in this novel. I think Tartt was trying to create a group of "outsiders". I found the main characters to be repugnant. Their arrogance, hypocrisy, and sense of entitlement were very unappealing. Being rich and condescending does not make one an outsider, just hard to like.
Tartt seems to shy away from discussing seemingly important events in the book, like the twins' sexual relationships, the events and experiecnes at the bachanal, the relationship between Henry and Camille, or the murders. Then she provides over-dramatic, almost adolescent descriptions of banal events and emotions common to most college students. More than once, I found myself literally rolling my eyes while reading some of these passages.
Each time Tartt quotes texts in another language, she feels the need to translate the text for us. Although many readers probably don't read ancient Greek, we also don't need every word of French or Latin translated for us, particularly when the quoted phrase is something as obvious as "amor vincit omnia".
My recommendation would be: Purchase and read this novel. It's *mostly* enjoyable. But don't believe the hype. This is not the novel of a mature writer. Not by a long shot.
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on December 28, 2002
To be honest, I don't really understand why this novel spawned such fanaticism and rock-star-esque heroine-worship for Donna Tartt. Sure, it's a gripping page-turner, and Donna Tartt writes crisp, occasionally beautiful prose, but I'm still not sure this quite deserves the classic status it seems to have been afforded. For a start, the plot seems a little telemovie for me -it plays right into popular cultural fantasies of evil, glamorous rich kids and their coke-snorting, amoral ways, mixed up with equally potent popular fantasies of arcane learning having a sinister heart (basically, a popular suspicion of the rich and over-educated.) I didn't really believe in any of the characters, although I was fairly happy to permit their larger-than-life, unreal existence within the context of an enjoyable, slightly trashy and extremely well-executed thriller. I'm still a bit confused as to why so many people claim this book changed their lives...It entertained me for a few late nights, but it's hardly great literature. Tartt's second novel, which I'm reading at the moment, seems to merit such high acclaim much more than this one does.
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on December 26, 2013
I agree with reviewer "me-jane" that this novel is over hyped even though it is a pager turner and an avid reader would find it difficult letting this book down. I am not going to go into the intentions and position of the author probably because it is hard to do that but the novel does raise a lot of moral issues and dilemmas. I do think that the only morally acceptable stance, though far from the desired one, was taken by Julian who totally refused to continue teaching those bunch of rich and spoiled kids who spent most of their time drinking and taking drugs when he knew that it was them who committed both crimes. Here I also have to agree with another reviewer who mentioned that if students living the kind of life this group led would have hard time graduating.

At times the novel made me quite angry. Henry, the mastermind and leader of the group, is the most ridiculous and abhorrent figure in the novel. I found the relationship of the twins quite repulsive as well.

However, as a thriller, I would give it five stars. A nice read during snowy and subzero days. Enjoyed it.
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