The Secret History

I’ve spent the last week or so, maybe longer, reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I wanted an absorbing novel, which it was, although I felt it was longer than it needed to be. It’s hard to tell, though, if a book feels too long because it IS too long, or because I’m too busy to read it at the pace I’d like and so it takes me longer to finish than I think it will. At any rate, it was enjoyable. I’ve been in the mood for academic novels lately, and this book scratched that itch. It’s set in a Vermont town that’s pretty clearly Bennington, and is about a close-knit group of students who take almost all their courses from one Greek professor. We learn at the book’s beginning that one of these students was murdered, but we don’t know how or why. So the novel is a cross between an academic novel and a murder mystery. As I was reading it, I kept thinking about the dust-up over this interview where Claire Messud gets (justifiably) irritated at a question about whether anyone would want to be friends with her character Nora from The Woman Upstairs. That interview sparked a whole lot of talk about likeable characters and whether readers want them in novels and whether it’s okay to want them. I found the characters in The Secret History to be intensely unlikeable all the way through. If they aren’t privileged, wealthy, and spoiled, they are arrogant and rude or feckless and foolish. The first-person narrator is one of the students, and he is the most sympathetic, but he still gets himself involved in horrible doings when he should know better and his attitude toward the novel’s events felt oddly distanced. Even so, I enjoyed reading about these characters, and so did a lot of other readers, evidently, as the book has been very popular. Perhaps this idea that readers want likeable characters just isn’t true, or perhaps readers are more likely to give college-aged students a pass? At any rate, I was surprised when one of the people on a podcast I listen to said that, given the option of what fictional world she’d like to live in, she’d choose the world of The Secret History, just without the murders. While a world where it’s possible to live in Vermont and spend tons of time studying Greek sounds appealing, I wouldn’t want to be a part of The Secret History. I’m very happy just to read about it and keep a safe distance.

15 Comments

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15 responses to “The Secret History

  1. I appreciate your thoughtful posting about this book, one of my favorite novels of all time. It is not without its flaws, I guess — but overall, I so enjoyed it. The characters, I agree, are truly unlikeable in the main, and yet, I did not think it over-paged. I wanted it to keep going. I may have been in a real reader-mode at the time, and this can often be the make-or-break for a person reading a great novel. Happened to me with The Great Gatsby, which everyone in the world loves — me — I did not like it, but blame, in retrospect, my distractions at the time of reading it. I was so impressed with The Secret History though, really enthralled all the way through. Donna Tartt’s next one, The Goldfinch, has become my most eagerly anticipated soon-to-be-released novel.

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    • I hope you like The Goldfinch! It may well have been the mood I was in when I read The Secret History that kept me from falling in love. I know so many people have! But it was an enjoyable read, after all. Just not in my list of favorites.

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      • Understood.
        Much like my reading of The Great Gatsby. I was not in the zone. I really wasn’t.
        I often do wonder at how much The Secret History seemed to grab me — it was almost unreasonable. A one-off, perhaps.

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  2. I really loved this book. In large part it is because my small, Southern, women’s college has a secret society. They wear robes and do weird things and all of them get special treatment. They could get away with murder!

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  3. I loved this, mainly I think because I’m a sucker for campus novels. have you read Carol Goodman’s ‘The Lake of Dead Languages’? It’s not as good, but the same sort of thing if you’re looking for something similar any time.

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  4. I remember reading this when it first came out and loving it. It’s funny now though I don’t remember much about it at all. I am eagerly awaiting her new book – out next week I think. And, as far as characters go, as long as they are interesting then I’m in!

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  5. Oh, I really liked this one. I did not find the characters all that likeable either but I am not one who requires the characters be likeable. It helps, yes, but sometimes not liking characters is just as fun and satisfying. I found the whole dust up with Messud quite puzzling. Glad you enjoyed the book and that it scratched your itch!

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  6. I read this one when it first came out. I didn’t like it. There were, for me, way too many errors a good editor should have caught. Believe it or not, that was before I was even an editor. I liked Tana French’s The Likeness much better, which was similar, and had its own flaws, but they didn’t ruin the story for me (and also had some despicable characters).

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    • Oh, interesting about the errors. I didn’t catch any, which I think means I wouldn’t be great editor, or at least not that kind. Oh, well. I plan on reading The Likeness before too long, and I’m really looking forward to it.

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  7. I have to admit: because most of the characters in the Secret History are not very nice, it was okay when bad stuff happen to them. It feels more like karma. It’s sort of like Seinfield.

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