The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Review

I listened to this book on audio narrated by Donna Tartt.

Title: The Secret History

Author: Donna Tartt

Format read: audiobook

Publication date: September 1992

Page Count: 559 Pages

Publisher: audible / Vintage

Genre: modern classic

Star rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Synopsis: all Richard wants to do is escape his life in Plano, California where his dad runs a petrol garage and expects him to follow in his footsteps. After yet another argument at home he manages to get funding to attend Hampden College in Vermont. His intention is to continue his study of Ancient Greek. But enigmatic Professor Julian won’t accept Richard into his class and he watches the other five students with envy and curiosity. Until one day he is finally admitted to the class and therefore to the inner circle of his classmates. What he finds there though is more than just a bunch of misfit kids, there are secrets, deceptions and even crime and as Richard gets sucked in further he becomes a part of their deprivation and corruption and eventually their descent into evil.

I had literally never heard of this novel until someone asked me to make them a candle inspired by it. After that I discovered it was some kind of sensation that everyone loved it! So I knew I had to give it a try, and as it’s fairly long I decided to play it on audible while I worked.

I found this novel to be incredibly engaging but almost inexplicably so. It’s really difficult to explain because on the face of it there’s nothing really exciting that happens to warrant it being a page turner, and yet it is. I listened to the version read by Donna Tartt herself and maybe it was this which put it across so well but it was just mesmerising.

If I was to summarise it I couldn’t do it justice. It would be something like ‘boy is unhappy at home, goes away to college, gets in with some rich, spoilt kids who committed a crime which leads to another crime, everyone is always drunk or on drugs, he suffers because he’s not as rich as them, there’s lots of tragedy.’

But as I say this wouldn’t do it justice. The book is written like a classic novel, the language is rich and beautiful, the descriptions perfect and I think I actually enjoyed listening to it more than I would have had I read it myself. The plot gives everything away in the first pages so you’d think this would spoil it, but what it leaves you with instead is a different kind of mystery, rather than a whodunnit it’s a when is it going to happen and why?

But what really made the book for me was the characters. Tartt explores the interior life of a complex range of different characters. Richard, the poor boy from California who pretends to be from money, battles with shame to the extent that he burns a photograph of his own mother so that nobody sees her cheap pantsuit. Henry quiet, unassuming but remarkably clever, incredibly rich and generous and seemingly kind but with a dark and mysterious side. The twins; Charles and Camilla (yes really, although I guess this maybe wasn’t a thing when this book was written), close but maybe too close? Good looking, fun, the good time guys. Frances, bespectacled, gay, secretive and yet loves a story and finally Bunny, loud, brash excellently described as being like an old uncle who thinks he’s imparting wisdom on everyone, selfish, bigoted and generally the oddest addition to the group I thought.

But all of these characters add incredible depth to the story, told from the perspective of Richard it shows just what a good story it is that you understand all the other characters motives, personalities and flaws just from what Richard observes. There is the constant sense that the reader is having as many secrets kept from them as Richard himself.

I’ve just realised that this is probably the longest review I’ve ever written and though I could say much more I’m going to leave it there and just say go read this book for yourself if you haven’t already!


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