Juushika's Reviews > The Secret History

The Secret History by Donna Tartt
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Jan 09, 11

bookshelves: status-owned, favorite-and-formative
Read in January, 2011

When Richard Papen transfers to New England's Hampden College, he falls in with a small group of erudite, haughty Greek scholars. But while Hampden fulfills his every academic dream, he discovers that behind their untouchable façade his fellow students hide strange faults and dark secrets—and he is drawn, inexorably, into both. The Secret History is, at the risk of shortly overusing the word, delightful. It shares an incredible similarity with Tana French's The Likeness , both in atmosphere and content: a group of untouchable, strangely intimate students tied up in a murder-mystery plot—but it's less a case of redundancy and more a case of further reading, as I'd recommend each one to fans of the other. The Secret History begins almost impeccably: Tartt has a lush, complex, rewarding writing style, and the story starts as an academic idealization of the most delightful sort. It is the college experience every academic wants to have, esoteric and indulgent, but bundled with complexity and psychological depth that make it more than simple wish-fulfillment. Having dug deep and grown comfortable as an academic fantasy, the book develops into a psychological thriller. Initially, it runs the risk of failing to live up to the high, tense expectations promised by its impressive language and weighty foreshadowing; the book's middle period, as the characters wallow in anxiety and alcohol as they try to cope with that they've done, threatens to grow stagnant. But the plot holds some strong punches, and the slow mental disintegration of the characters gives psychological weight and depth to those events. It may not fulfill its every lofty expectation, but The Secret History frequently comes close.

The result is a book which is pretentious and idealized in the most enjoyable sense, intensely compelling despite its length and, occasionally, its pacing, finely crafted and constantly a pleasure to read. I imagine it's even more rewarding upon reread, and will soon find out for myself. This is a work of skill—not faultless, but no worse for that, perhaps because the fact that it invites a careful eye and extra attention more than makes up for the faults they uncover. I devoured this book, and every page of it was delicious; to those that enjoy what it has to offer—intelligence, joy, suspense, psychology, academia, obscurity, character, beauty, artisty, language, and skill—I recommend it with enthusiasm. It is—again—delightful.
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