Maggie Stiefvater's Reviews > The Secret History

The Secret History by Donna Tartt
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's review
Jul 15, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: adult, recommended

Five Things About The Secret History.

This is going to be a difficult book for me to talk about. I finished it days ago but I find myself a little verklempt, I’ll admit. It’s been a long time since a book has stuck with me so completely as this one, and I say that having had a quite remarkable year for memorable reading. So, the summary is straightforward and completely unhelpful: a Californian boy arrives at a private New England college where he falls in with a bunch of snooty but delightful Classics majors who happen to have accidentally killed someone during a Bacchian rite they just happened to be conducting in their spare time. That is a totally truthful depiction of some of the events in the book, but it is not what the book is ABOUT. I will do my best to convince you to pick it up in other ways. Without further ado, here are five things about THE SECRET HISTORY.

1. This is not a new book. All of your friends have already read it. You probably already have a copy of it, actually, that you picked up at some point in the last decade, and now it molders in a box in your master bedroom closet, the one that you never unpacked last time you moved. Right next to your college alarm clock and two boxes of 9-volt batteries and that shirt you can’t throw out because it was a gift. The reason why I’m pointing out that it’s not a new book is because, since reading it, I’ve been told by several people that it is their Favorite Book Ever. It is one thing for you to read a book six months before and maintain it as a Favorite Book. It is something more remarkable when a book can elicit a passionate response from readers twenty years after its publication.

2. This book is full of terrible people. Pretty much the lot of the people that our narrator Richard meets are awful in some way. Self-centered or elitist or potheads or sociopathic or just people with really loud voices in quiet places. Even Richard is not exactly a great guy. But the magic of this novel is that, somehow, you find these terrible people deeply sympathetic. I need to go back and reread it to understand this strange enchantment. How do I find them so charming? Why do I want them to like Richard? GIVE ME YOUR SECRETS, BOOK.

3. This is not a whodunit. You are told pretty much the Bad Thing That Happens in the prologue, and you can see it coming like a comet for much of the book. The effect of this, however, is to create a lovely, unbearable tension and anticipation. And when the moment comes — in a line that involves ferns — it is so deliciously awful. I actually exhaled gloriously and put the book down for a moment because I was so delighted by the actual pay off.

4. It’s long. It’s over 200,000 words long, I think, and 600 pages in my edition. It took me five days to read it. And it’s not just long, it’s dense. One of the blurbs on the inside of the jacket said that it read like a 19th century novel, and I don’t think that’s at all unearned. It takes its time developing atmosphere and character quirks and some of the days in the novel take dozens of pages to unfold. It is not a novel to speed through. It’s a novel to get stuck in. I put it down when I got too tired, when I felt like I was starting to skim.

5. WHAT ELSE CAN I SAY? I adore the characters so much. I adore the hint —the breath — of the supernatural. I adore the slow, building tension and the sense that I, as a reader, was being skillfully manipulated. Yes, that. That last one. I think that is what I love the most about this novel. I get the idea that Donna Tartt was completely in control of this novel. Everything is measured and deliberate and just perfectly done, and I trust her entirely. Fifty pages in, I knew that she was going to tell me a story I was going to enjoy, even if I had no idea what it was going to be.

Man, I just am going to flail about some more. Go read it.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
July 12, 2012 – Finished Reading
July 15, 2012 – Shelved
July 15, 2012 – Shelved as: adult
November 7, 2013 – Shelved as: recommended

Comments (showing 1-50 of 63) (63 new)

message 1: by Jillian (new)

Jillian Karger This book sent me into a book depression--as in I was mad at the next ten or fifteen books I read afterward for NOT being The Secret History. I also can't understand why it's not a movie yet. It's one of the most camera-ready books I've ever read.

message 2: by Kirsten (new)

Kirsten sounds amazing! but is it clean? Like sexual diologe? someone please tell me!

message 3: by Jill (new) - added it

Jill One of my favorites of all time. Not much sexual dialogue, lots of innuendo...

message 4: by Lianne (new) - added it

Lianne I'm adding this to my list based on your review. Sounds wonderful!

message 5: by Amanda (new) - added it

Amanda This sounds a bit like The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler, which I really enjoyed. :) It looks even better though, I must get it soon!

message 6: by Angelnet (new) - added it

Angelnet Just went to buy it but its not available for Kindle. Seriously!

message 7: by Chiamaka (new) - added it

Chiamaka That review made me want to read it, Amazon here i come ^^ Thank you Maggie, seriously. It sounds awesome !!!

Makingamark I vividly remember reading The Secret History - I was painting in Prague in 1992(?), it was October and very cold. I was enjoying the city, enjoying the painting and yet I looked forward to every opportunity I got to read some more. I associate it with walking along very quiet streets in Prague late at night wondering where all the traffic has gone. Was Prague spooky or was I spooked by 'The Secret History"?
I was right back there as soon as I saw you'd read the book. It's a book which has stayed with me for 20 years. The only problem with it is you have to wait a very long time before you can read it again, because you don't want to spoil your memories of the first time you read it.

Shannon Great review, Maggie. I remember staying up all night long and reading this straight through when it was first released. That has not happened before or since for me. Perhaps it is time to read it again.

message 10: by Lori (new)

Lori Sorry -- hated it, but I finished it because it was compelling reading. LOL! It just made me feel creepy even while I was glued to it and the pages just kept turning.

Nancy You're absolutely right about Tartt manipulating the reader - at first you're horrified by the idea that they kill Bunny, but some how Tartt tricks you into justifying it in your mind. It's brilliant and terrifying.

message 12: by Karine (new) - added it

Karine Mon coin lecture Favorite book ever. I was so into it that I had to read it twice. The way Tartt can make us like those terrible characters, almost make us justify what they done is incredible and brilliant!

Sophie Beautifully said!

message 14: by Carrie (new)

Carrie Foster Well I'm sold now. I'll be reading this immediately!

Katie O I read this per your recommendation and wholeheartedly agree with you! I usually am unable to make it through books with all hateful characteristic; this book perplexed and amazed me. I hated the characters yet rooted for them the whole time. And I never knew why! Best book I have read in a long time.

Corinne L. Just received the book 5mns ago...I usually read 4-5 books at the same time but have a feeling this particular book is possessive and won't share me with other books. Can't wait...

message 17: by Sangita (new)

Sangita Mazumder Thank you for your review. I have already made my mind to start reading this book; the only thing I was missing was a slight encouragement.

Carolyn Exactly. Every point you made.
I guess I was in the throes of child-raising when this came out and now I feel like I've just discovered something wonderful that EVERYONE BUT ME knew about. Finished it an hour ago and I'm just absolutely limp with sadness that it's over and so sure that any book I next pick up will be a huge disappointment. Maybe I'll have a Netflix palate-cleanser until I recover.

Jonathon I utterly adore this book. It was my favourite novel until The Goldfinch. Donna Tartt is just incredible.

message 20: by Fee (new) - rated it 3 stars

Fee Now I want to re-read it to see why it didn't make ME feel all those things!

message 21: by Mjdrean (new) - added it

Mjdrean How many kids do you have? And you read this book in five days??!!! Wow.

Jennice I just finished this book last week and I agree that it is one of the greatest books I've ever read!

message 23: by Sherry (new) - added it

Sherry You've convinced me - it just went on my want to read list!

message 24: by Destiny (new) - added it

Destiny Mine too!

message 25: by Patty (new)

Patty I loved The Secret History! I read it after reading The Goldfinch, which I consider a masterpiece. Now I'm not sure which I enjoyed more. I agree with Maggie that although I should not have had empathy for Richard, I couldn't help myself. Perhaps many of us have tried a little too hard to be someone we were not. I think there were shades of Crime and Punishment in The Secret History and Donna Tartt is one clever author.

message 26: by Jen (new)

Jen I hope some of that atmosphere seeps into your future work.

Daniela @carliene

Geraldine Sánchez It's ready

Barbara Also one of my all-time favorite books. By far the best Donna Tartt has written so far.

Sophia Bennett One of my favourites too. I read it while I was in college, and the creepy atmosphere was perfect.

Carolyn One of my very favorite books. Period.

message 32: by Jen (new) - added it

Jen Lynn I have never, never, never read a review that made me want to read a book as badly as I want to read this one after reading your review. Cheers!

message 33: by Jen (new) - added it

Jen Lynn I have never, never, never read a review that made me want to read a book as badly as I want to read this one after reading your review. Cheers!

message 34: by Jen (new) - added it

Jen Lynn I have never, never, never read a review that made me want to read a book as badly as I want to read this one after reading your review. Cheers!

message 35: by Sofia (new) - added it

Sofia Dragacevac I already wanted to read this book, but seeing such a captivating review from an author who's taste I trust just enforces my need to read this book. Thank you for this!

Siddharth This review probably made me want to read this book. Awesome awesome review!

Emily Lovely review! I just finished reading this book and it's now one of my all time favorites! One of the most masterful character studies i've ever read and i think it's very greek in that respect.

Sally-ann This really is a classic. It is so satisfying, absorbing and depressing at the same time. I've been meaning to read it for years, and as soon as I started I wondered why I hadn't already read it. Clear a bit of time and read it: it's really worth it.

Esmeralda M. This is a great and precise review.

message 40: by Diane (new) - added it

Diane it is on Overdrive for free

esther s To be honest, I feel like Donna Tartt is the Henry Winter of the novel and we are all Richard Papen. She is the real person in control of our obsession with this book and its flawed characters, right from the very beginning until the very last sentence.

Breanna Yes to #3! I had a huge exhale and a rest once the murder had taken place. I thought it strange to put the climax in the prologue, but the build up to the event worked tremendously. Also my new favourite book.

Jessica Marble I've been debating between Americanah, The Poisonwood Bible and this...eager to read them all but because of you, this one is first. Thanks Maggie!

Arah-Lynda Maggie absolutely the best review I have read on this masterpiece. Cheers.

message 45: by Maureen (new)

Maureen Connerty Dmcs

message 46: by Amy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Amy I agree entirely with your review. I am one of those people who has had this book in my top five for many years. I love it still.

message 47: by Lina (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lina Scalfino I agree Maggie, I loved the book for all the reasons you highlight and more. She is an expert author and story teller.

Priscilla Great review. Completed this book 2 days ago and love the story tellling.

Margot Loved your review, Maggie. After reading this book, it was immediately re-read.

message 50: by Ida (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ida January I also "adore the hint , the breath, of the supernatural " of this fantastic novel ... well put! And your right, these are not characters you like, rather Tartt makes you feel like you know them in and out, they are truly living, breathing characters. A signature of Tartts talent, Little Friend also features characters that are just plain awful but they are so endearing and real you can't help remembering them long after you have finished. One of my favorite books and authors of all time, I impatiently wait for new material!

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