The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History “I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell…”

The Secret History is not exactly a mystery novel, in the usual sense. We are told right at the beginning of the book, in the prologue in fact, that our narrator Richard Papen and his friends have murdered a fellow student, Edmund ‘Bunny’ Corcoran. What we don’t know is why.

To explain the events leading up to the murder, Richard then takes us back to his first day at Hampden College in Vermont where he resolves to join the Classics department, an elite group of five students and their enigmatic professor, Julian Morrow. Despite being warned that Julian is very selective about the students he admits to his class and that taking Classics would leave him isolated from the rest of the college, Richard persists and is accepted into the group. His new friends – Henry, Bunny, Francis, Camilla and her twin brother, Charles – are rich, eccentric and secretive, and as Richard gets to know them better, he learns something shocking about them. But by now he has been drawn into their inner circle and it’s too late to walk away…

The Secret History is divided into two parts and as I read Part 1 and learned more about the build-up to Bunny’s death I found myself completely agreeing with the general opinion that this was a great book. Although we know from the start who is going to be murdered and who will be responsible for his death, the story is still compelling as there are still a lot of secrets to be revealed and a lot of questions to be answered. The story had a timeless feel, which I’m sure was intentional, and I couldn’t work out exactly when it was supposed to be set. I finally decided it must be the late 80s/very early 90s though due to some confusing cultural references for a long time I thought it might be earlier than that. It’s also a wonderfully atmospheric book, a combination of the elegant writing and the insular setting of a small college in a small community. The cold, harsh winter Richard spends alone in Hampden, virtually homeless and trying to stay warm, particularly stays in my mind after finishing the book, although I’m not sure what significance that episode had in the context of the rest of the story.

So, The Secret History is definitely a page-turner and only took me a few days to read, despite the length. Somewhere in Part 2, though, I thought the story started to lose some of its impetus. There was still plenty of suspense as right until the end of the book the reader is kept wondering how things will resolve for Richard, Henry, Francis and the twins, and how they will cope with the consequences of what they did. But I felt that this was dragged out for too long and I quickly got bored with the various excesses of the characters (were there any students in that entire college who didn’t have a drug or alcohol problem? I could accept that some of them might have done, but surely not all of them!) I’m glad to have finally read The Secret History – I was starting to feel that I was the only person in the world who still hadn’t read it – but although I did enjoy it I was not as enamoured with it as so many other people have been. I wonder if maybe I would have liked it more if I’d read it when I was younger and closer to the age of the characters in the story.

One final thing I want to mention is that almost as soon as I started reading The Secret History I started to get the feeling I already knew the story. And then I remembered what it reminded me of – The Secret Diaries by Janice Harrell, a trilogy of young adult novels I read and loved as a teenager. I managed to find my old copy of the final book in the trilogy, Escape, and couldn’t believe the number of similarities with The Secret History, which was published two or three years before Harrell’s books. It was not just the general plot that was the same (a group of students covering up a dark secret, a narrator who is a newcomer and desperate to be accepted by the group, etc.), but some of the finer details as well – the personalities of some of the characters, the consequences of their actions, the weekend trips to a cabin in the woods, even the fact that two of the characters in The Secret History were twins (one male and one female) while in The Secret Diaries we’re constantly being told that Stephen and his girlfriend Tessa look like twins. I can’t find any more information about this online, apart from one or two bloggers who have said they noticed the same thing, but it has made me curious! Has anyone else read both The Secret History and The Secret Diaries?

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26 thoughts on “The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  1. Laura Caldwell says:

    I have not read (or heard of) The Secret Diaries, but The Secret History is my favorite book. I agree, however, that the last part of the book is weak. Most of it is just SO good that I forgive the ending…sort of.

    • Helen says:

      Based on the first half of the book, this would have become a favourite of mine too, but I thought the second half was disappointing in comparison. I did enjoy it though, and am glad I finally got round to reading it!

  2. Roberts says:

    I haven’t read “The Secret Diaries”, but I like “The Secret History”. I live in Romania and here Donna Tartt’s bokks are not very popular. Do you read “The little friend”? (is one of my favourite book)….

  3. Teresa says:

    I read The Secret History when it was first published so I was much younger and perhaps more in tune with the themes. It remains one of my favourites but if I read it now it might be eclipsed by other books more in line with the more mature me! 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I love re-reading books but am always afraid that they won’t have the same effect as they did the last time I read them. Sometimes our age and circumstances can really alter the way we feel about a book!

  4. Caz says:

    I read this years ago and although it’s not my usual type of read, I remember being utterly engrossed by it. I haven’t read the other book you mention either 😦

    • Helen says:

      I used to read a lot of books of this type, but my tastes have changed in recent years. It was engrossing but I wish I’d read it when I was younger.

  5. aartichapati says:

    I’ve not read this one though i know it’s a blogger favorite. Every time I pick it up, though, I just remember that movie The Skulls…

  6. Elizabeth says:

    Wow, I’ve never read The Secret Diaries, but now I want to check them out to see the similarities for myself! When I read The Secret History I was a classics student at a small college in a small cold town. I wonder if I would love it as much now that I’m a little farther away from that world.

    • Helen says:

      I’m not sure how easy it is to get hold of Janice Harrell’s books these days, but if you ever get the opportunity to read The Secret Diaries I don’t think you could fail to be reminded of The Secret History. There are some differences, of course, and The Secret Diaries were written for YA readers, but they have almost the same plot.

  7. Sarah says:

    I agree – this is a complete page turner and fascinating to read. I didn’t enjoy the follow-up at all but this stands up as an excellent and unsettling read.

  8. dot says:

    This is one of my favourite books but I read for the first time when I was younger and so I definitely identified with the characters more. I think it is a bit of a marmite book, I didn’t enjoy Donna Tart’s second book either.

  9. Joanne says:

    It’s a long time since I read The Secret History but I remember that I loved it. I haven’t read The Secret Diaries, but another book which reminded me of The Secret History is Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl.

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t heard of the Marisha Pessl book. I suppose it’s inevitable that a book as popular and successful as The Secret History will have been a big influence on other authors.

  10. Leander says:

    One of my absolute favourites. *sighs happily* I read this in sixth form just before going to university and I think it was a classic example of the book being perfect for the circumstances. I desperately wanted to find people among the dreaming spires who were as bright and brilliant and knowledgeable… Yes, they’re also elitist and possibly sociopathic but that didn’t bother me hugely at the time. I was just consumed with an intense feeling of envy about all the fabulous conversations they had…

    Yes, I agree the end is a little weak, but I am so deeply in love with the rest of the book that I honestly don’t mind. Afterwards I went on to read The Little Friend, which disappointed me in comparison; I now can’t even remember what that’s about. Which probably means it’s time to read it again!

    • Helen says:

      I think sixth form/university age is probably the perfect time to read this book. I wish I’d read it then instead of waiting until now. And yes, I can understand why Richard wanted to be part of that group – they had plenty of attractive qualities as well as bad ones.

      Sorry to hear The Little Friend didn’t compare to this one. I’m trying to decide whether I want to read it or not.

  11. Coffee & a BookChick (@CoffeeBookChick) says:

    I definitely loved The Secret History, but can totally appreciate that the second half may have been a bit excessive with the drinking and partying, etc., etc. I felt the same, and I’ll attribute it to the fact that the author had close relationships with other famous writers (Bret Easton Ellis of American Psycho), so maybe that was the life they all lived? Ah, well. Anywho, I just started reading Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings and it has the same feel of The Secret History, but I think it’s a bit more refined in the writing style thus far. I’m only about 40 pages in and I already feel the atmosphere. These are the kinds of books I love!

    • Helen says:

      I couldn’t really relate to the students in the book as my experience of university was very different, but yes, maybe that was the kind of life the author lived. I haven’t heard of The Interestings, but it sounds…interesting! 🙂 I’m glad you’re enjoying it so far.

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