BLURB: ‘Richard Papen arrived at Hampden College in New England and was quickly seduced by an elite group of five students, all Greek scholars, all worldly, self-assured, and, at first glance, all highly unapproachable. As Richard is drawn into their inner circle, he learns a terrifying secret that binds them to one another…a secret about an incident in the woods in the dead of night where an ancient rite was brought to brutal life…and led to a gruesome death. And that was just the beginning…’ (Goodreads.com)
MADE ME FEEL: Interested, intrigued, and then quite bored and then shocked.
READ IF YOU LIKE: Murder novels, books about university, lots of rich kids who drink a lot.
PAGE COUNT: Approx.629 (Penguin version)
STAR RATING: (★★★☆☆) – I had such high expectations of this book, but it didn’t live up to them.
I read this book extremely quickly, partly because I think books as long as this become duller and duller the longer you spend on them. That was not what happened. Although Donna Tartt writes beautifully, the book was pretty dull from the first pages.
The basic storyline is Richard Papen, from California, who doesn’t have much money, (comparably) moves to Vermont to a university called Hampden. He decides that he wants to take a Classics degree and meets an eccentric group of 5 other students along with their Classics teacher, Julian, who at one point is described as a ‘deity’. He was not.
These people in my opinion put Richard through hell, even though it appears he enjoys their pretentious, pompous, selfish, rude, rich-kid ways and goes to lengths to fit in with them, and doesn’t realise how much they have changed him.
As well as the theme of college and university life, all the alcohol (they drink A LOT of alcohol, almost in every scene, made me feel ill just reading about it), there is also the theme of murder. This is not particularly a spoiler, because it is a central part of the novel, and Tartt, even before either murder has happened, just slips it in there as if we already knew, without further acknowledgement. These two murders, one of which is a bit more serious than the other, are treated in such an off-hand nature by the group, and their circumstances for killing are just so ridiculous and unjustifiable that I thought they were all a bit psycho, really. There is no suspense surrounding them, so its like a murder novel, but if you take away the good bits.
Henry Winter is maybe the ringleader of the group. He’s extremely rich, tall, probably quite handsome, obsessed with anything that’s in a different language, is very introverted and goes off to ‘think’ a lot. He was the only character I genuinely liked, he was mysterious and didn’t take any crap from anyone, but bordered on being a bit controlling. The twins, Camilla and Charles, come from a less pompous background, but Charles, who I thought was one of the more normal ones, end up being completely twisted and disgusting. Camilla is the token woman in the group, and is treated like a goddess by everyone, despite her tendency to just block out any problems she runs into in the book. Francis is the gay, ginger one who is everyone’s ‘friend’ but doesn’t really achieve much in the book, or do anything of note besides coming on to the male characters quite a bit. And lastly, Bunny, the only character who was loud, eccentric, funny, a bit annoying but good natured, meets his grim demise as the other characters decide they have to dispose of him, and I can’t even really remember why they kill him, and I finished this book yesterday.
I hated this group of people. I don’t know if this was Tartt’s intention but I cared less and less about them throughout the book, as the small hopes I had of them turning out to be nice people, were slowly destroyed.
I don’t want to give off the impression that the entire book is drivel. I did genuinely enjoy the first part, the stories of this group and little anecdotes as the older Richard looked back, but it was ruined by the second half, which was a shame. The climax of the book comes at around page 200, and the book is over 600 pages long. So in this second half, they just sit around in each other’s dirty apartments, sleeping at strange hours of the day, drinking, smoking, taking drugs, talking about other’s drinking habits, talking about the weather a lot, going to the hospital for the amount they drink, maybe having a couple of panic attacks, while drinking and smoking. There are also a worrying amount of scenes where its just Richard walking around, doing absolutely nothing, maybe going to talk to one of his other annoying campus friends, or going to get a drink and then going back to his room and sleeping at weird hours. Scenes that have absolutely no purpose or meaning. It’s ridiculous and quite tiring to read. Then, in the last 50 pages, something interesting does happen, and I was so pleased that the plot was finally moving somewhere. It is a good ending, I will give her that, but that middle section is quite unforgivable.
Another one of the books redeeming features, which I had heard about beforehand, is Tartts ability to describe everything perfectly. I knew exactly what these characters were like, how they looked, what their apartments looked like, their mannerisms, I even had an idea of how they talked. This would have made the book vivid and exciting to be involved with, had the plot not been so dry and dull. Make it 300 pages shorter, and you have a winner. Also, if anybody can tell me why its called ‘The Secret History’, that would be lovely thanks.