Madeline's Reviews > The Secret History

The Secret History by Donna Tartt
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Jul 13, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: the-list, all-time-favorites

The best word I can think of to describe this book is mesmerizing. You know from the very first page that the narrator and his friends will kill someone during the course of the story - you even know who the victim is and how he dies. But that didn't stop me from reading this book as fast as I could, trying to absorb every word.
A truly gifted author can create the most unappealing character possible and still draw the audience to his/her side. Donna Tartt does exactly this with her main character, Richard, who is far from a good person. He lies frequently and well, and over the course of his narration will often mention being completely drunk or doing lines of cocaine in a matter-of-fact tone, with absolutely no shame. His five friends, all Greek scholars at an elite private college, are just like him. The six main characters of this story are not good people, and that does not bother them. That's probably what makes them, and their story, so incredibly fascinating.

Here's one of my favorite quotes from the book, and it sort of sums up the entire point of the story:
"The Greeks were different. They had a passion for order and symmetry, much like the Romans, but they knew how foolish it was to deny the unseen world, the old gods. Emotion, darkness, barbarism...Do you remember what we were speaking of earlier, how bloody, terrible things are sometimes the most beautiful? It's a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our moral selves? Euripides speaks of the Maenads: head thrown back, throat to the stars, 'more like deer than human being.' To be absolutely free! One is quite capable, of course, of working out these destructive passions in more vulgar and less efficient ways. But how glorious to release them in a single burst! To sing, to scream, to dance barefoot in the woods in the dead of night, with no more awareness of mortality than an animal! These are poweful mysteries. The bellowing of bulls. Springs of honey bubbling from the ground. If we are strong enough in our souls that we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn."
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02/21/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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Cynthia I am SO glad you liked this book. It is one of my favorites. I think it took the author ten years to write!

Christina It's funny that you focused on how terrible the characters were, because I found this book to be entirely amoral. It was all about the aesthetics of the thing, the ultimate of beauty, separate entirely from the obstruction morality creates in our society. In this way, you find the characters engrossing, not really because they're terrible people, but because they create an aesthetic of themselves. Like they lived their lives as if in a painting -- meant only to be viewed, not judged. That's the sort of feeling I got from it.

Madeline Definitely agree. I was amazed at how little consideration the characters gave to the eventual results of their actions. Even Richard says in his narration that he was surprised by how calmly they all decided that they were going to kill Bunny. At times, it felt like the main characters lived their lives as if they were characters in one of the Greek epics they studied.

Also, could someone please psychoanalyze Henry? Seriously.

message 4: by El (new) - rated it 4 stars

El I really liked it too. Have you read her other book, The Little Friend?

Madeline Yes. And I was significantly less enamored of it in comparison.
(see review for angry, spoiler-filled ranting)

message 6: by Michelle (last edited Mar 05, 2009 10:22AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Michelle At times, it felt like the main characters lived their lives as if they were characters in one of the Greek epics they studied.

I completely agree. I loved this book!

Do you think their professor encouraged them in a way, and then abandoned them, or do you think he just didn't realize what they were capable of?

message 7: by El (new) - rated it 4 stars

El Yeah, I think Tartt got a lot of crap for her second book, and was accused of not even writing the first book since the two were so different. I guess that's why we still haven't seen anything else by her, which is really sad in my opinion.

Madeline Michelle: I believe that Julian completely underestimated, not his students' intelligence or will power, but their ability to separate fact from fiction, real life from myth, and right from wrong. The section of the book where he realizes what Richard and his friends have done is, to me, one of the most heartbreaking parts of the story. Julian taught his students so many wonderful things, and placed so much trust in their judgement, and I think they betrayed him much more than they betrayed Bunny.

El: I can totally understand why people would feel that way - the two books are completely different. But I hope she keeps writing, because she's amazingly talented. And The Little Friend was a great book; I just disliked it for it's complete lack of closure.

Jillian Thanks for the great discussion. I can't wait to read this! It sounds like The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Jordan Great review! This book is amazing! I've got to say ever since I read The Secret History I've had Donna Tartt on the brain. Last tuesday I saw Donna Tartt in Interview about The Secret History, which was amazing.

Steve I liked this book a lot as well and I'm going to read the rest of Tartt's work. But I have a little different take on the meaning of it. I'm still mulling it over in my mind and will get it down. I don't think I quite agree with the notion that beauty is terrifying. "Naked, terrible beauty." Hmmm. Don't think I know what that is supposed to mean. I'm groping toward what I think is at least one theme she has in mind: that we make a mistake trying to be rational about the irrational. These are all very cerebral characters and yet they are drinking and smoking constantly. Constantly. Popping pills without considering what they are taking. Rational formally. Out of control in fact and completely unaware of it as their default condition. Interesting.

Ellie I think that's really well put: "This book is mesmerizing." There is so much going on in this book. Friendship, wanting to shed your past, intellectual life vs. reality, the banality of evil, some mental illness, etc. It's all there, and the book's world and characters (although obviously not good people) are so appealing to read about. Just man, so damn good.

Sarah I feel like the professor is really similar to Henry. Also, I think he is kind of manipulative in a way.

Ernestas Vascenka Cynthia wrote: "I am SO glad you liked this book. It is one of my favorites. I think it took the author ten years to write!"
Tartt literally writes a book every decade :D

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