The Secret History



Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries.

But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last – inexorably – into evil.

~ Synopsis from Goodreads

If The Goldfinch was Dickensian in style, then The Secret History is Shakespearean, to be more precise Macbeth-ian in style.

The theme of the book is very similar to Macbeth, a crime is committed, and has a huge psychological impact on the people who committed the crime.

The book starts off actually revealing that Richard and his friends have murdered one of the members of their group. The story then goes back in time to explain how and why they killed him, and then the consequences of the murder.

But it’s not just a whodunit, or a whydunit. It’s so much more than that. It’s for one thing unabashedly snobbish and intellectual in an East-coast Ivy League college kind of way. Richard and his friends don’t just learn any general subject. They learn ancient Greek, and bits and pieces of their conversation are littered with Greek and Latin. They don’t just party like any other collegiate, they indulge in bacchanals, which (going by the images I saw on the net) seems like a violent, drunken orgy. Yup, I had to look up the word to understand just what it is this weird group was into.

Lovis Corinth Heimkehrende Bacchanten 1898 by Lovis Corinth - [1]. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

What a bacchanal possibly looks like: Lovis Corinth Heimkehrende Bacchanten 1898 by Lovis Corinth – [1]. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

And most important, they don’t just indulge in small-time crimes, they wade into murder like they were born to it.

If I had ever met these people in real-life, I would have been pretty contemptuous of them and their pseudo-intellectual ways. But in this book, they are fascinating. I don’t want to give more details about their group dynamics as it’s much more gripping if you don’t know the details before you read this book.

So gripping in fact, that I finished this chunkster (almost 600 pages) in huge gulps at a time. Normally, a book this size would take me a week, but I got so involved in this one, I read it compulsively through three nights last weekend and consequently I now feel like the hung over characters in the book.

The best way to read it curled up on the couch under a blanket late at night. A drink or two or many are also suggested to get into the mood.

The best way to read it curled up on the couch under a blanket late at night. A drink or two or many are also suggested to get into the mood.

So, The Secret History is about a murder and a secret, but it is also very much a book about friendship. Especially the teenage kind of friendships that we all have gone through. Remember the groupism, and the insecurities, and paranoia that was present in our teen friendships and relationships? Well all that and more is brilliantly captured in this book. Even though this book takes this friendship theme to extremes, I could relate to Richard’s feelings of wanting to belong in an élite group in college, the feeling of pride I had when I did belong, and while I still have my great college friendships, I could understand how all these people in the group faced loneliness and despair when their friendship struggled under the weight of the crime and their guilt.

However this book is not all dark, there are tons of black comedy throughout (some in pretty bad taste) as well. I mean mocking the grief of the family of the man you murdered? It takes a brave woman to write such stuff, and even though I tsk tsk’ed through some parts, I enjoyed them anyway.

Frankly, I enjoyed the entire book. There are sections where there is a bit too much description but it’s nowhere near as verbose as The Goldfinch.

There’s not one boring moment in The Secret History. Highly entertaining and original plot, and I loved every bit of it. The only downside is that I really wanted to know more details – especially of the first murder, which is kind of glossed over in the book, and more about what one of the more intriguing protagonists was thinking towards the end. Was there another murder planned? Urggh. I wish there was more book discussion on the web about this book, there’s so much to think about and discuss after reading it.

Last Words

Ending this review with a quote from Richard who (of course thinks in Latin):

Nihil sub sole novum. Any action, in the fullness of time, sinks to nothingness.

Very apt, I think. But not for this book, this is a modern classic that stands the test of time, in my opinion.

Not that this is a perfect book, or one that will appeal universally. If you like books with a strong moral sentiment running through it, this is not the book for you. Nor is it a book for people offended by drugs.

But I found it compulsive reading, and then some. Give this book a try, you might spend all night reading this book like I did.

Huge thanks to Jenny who urged me so many, many times to read this book. Now I really need to get to Howl’s Moving Castle, another very strong recommendation by her.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?

You can also purchase a copy of this book from Amazon

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  • Jennine G.

    I was going to ask how much detail does it give compared to Goldfinch, but you thought to answer that already!

    • Nishita

      @JennineG:disqus I thought The Goldfinch dragged in parts. Here I didn’t feel that at all. It just felt like really well-written crime fiction.

  • I would love to read some Donna Tartt but I am super intimidated by her writng. Someday, I hope to pick up one her books.

    • Nishita

      @athirac:disqus The Goldfinch is a bit more uneven, so I recommend you start with The Secret History, it’s long but pretty gripping. I think you will like it.

  • I found this book in a second-hand shop this summer. Now you’ve made me really want to get to it, but I have so many library books! 🙂

  • Verity from Lilolia

    Great review Nishita! It’s been on my TBR since I read the Goldfinch which I really enjoyed. This one sounds great! Glad you filled us in on the bacchanals…had no clue what that was. 😀

    • Nishita

      @Verity from Lilolia: I had no idea about these either. If you liked The Goldfinch, you will love this one.

  • Zoë

    Great review! I am glad you enjoyed it so much. It has been on my reading list for a while. I hope I get to it soon!

    • Nishita

      @disqus_VgvrqNgGl4:disqus You should, I think you”ll like this one very, very much.

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