The Secret History

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History is about a group of students who commit a crime, what they do to get away with it, and how it affects them. They’re mostly rich and privileged, and kind of set apart from all the other students on campus, taking all their classes from one eccentric professor, so elitism and entitlement are issues. They’re advanced Greek students, so there’s a lot of interesting info on that language and philosophy and history. The group’s dynamics, personality conflicts, secret motivations, and power shifts drive the plot once it gets going, and they’re fascinating.

The book is incredibly suspenseful, with two or three surprising twists that I’m afraid of spoiling. It was really fun to read, full of tension and mystery. The first-person narrator is a newcomer to the group, an inside-outsider who gets just enough information to make a kind of sense of what’s going on, but not enough to fully understand until it’s too late. It’s a long book, but it’s full of dialogue and dramatic scenes, so it moves quickly. I always like learning when I read, and this book taught me a good deal about Greek philosophy. In some ways the novel is a speculation into what it would be like to try to live out Greek philosophy in today’s world. Hint: it wouldn’t go so well, especially the Dionysian stuff.

One of my favorite things about the book is that the victim is so deliciously annoying, that I almost wanted him to die as much as the characters did, and that kind of made me complicit in the crime. It made it seem permissible, even right, when you know it shouldn’t. You realize that the only thing keeping you from cheering on a murder is a purely intellectual opinion that it’s wrong; you realize how flimsy and weak your moral mind is compared with your gut feeling that this irritating guy just needs to die. That’s pretty powerful stuff. It takes a great writer to involve readers like that and make them understand things about their own flaws.


One thought on “The Secret History

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