Book review: The Secret History

Although The Secret History by Donna Tartt was first published back in 1992, it’s more popular now than ever. I have seen this book all over TikTok – or BookTok – Instagram, Goodreads, what-have-you. I knew I wanted to read it, and as soon as a book club started here at North, I figured it would be a great book to read. Considering it takes place in the winter and I knew it as a gothic/dark academia/mysterious novel, the month of November was the perfect time to pick up this book.
The Secret History is narrated by one character – Richard – but also follows five other main characters throughout the book, which include Henry, Francis, Bunny, Charles, and Camilla. They all attend Hampden College in Vermont and study Greek, which ultimately led the six students to the friendships we read about. Though it sounds boring to read about college students studying Greek, the book picks up its pace quite a bit when you realize the plot. The Secret History is distinctly split into two parts: The events that lead to a murder, and what happened after that.
Unfortunately, though I expected to love this book, I was extremely underwhelmed the entire time. The book has a slow start, which is more like a slow crawl, considering nothing important happens until about 250-ish pages in, when we finally get to meeting the other characters as opposed to just hearing Richard’s inner monologues (which are so long and boring and completely unnecessary to the story.)
However, when we get about a third of the way into the book we start to realize that every single word Donna Tartt is writing was put there for a reason. The book is overstuffed with words, and though it may seem unnecessary, they are there for a reason. If someone were to reread this book, they would understand the impact of every sentence, because every paragraph has foreshadowing. Some people may enjoy that, but for me personally, I found it difficult to not let my mind wander when reading about the weather for a page and a half. I was also annoyed at how many loose ties there are about the characters. They all keep secrets, but most of them are never revealed. I know that Tartt does this purposefully, but considering the fact that the characters and their secrets were the only thing important throughout the book, it feels like the novel is unfinished.
However, I did like a few things throughout the book. I have always liked character driven novels, and this is exactly what this book is about. Looking back to when I read it, I’m truly not sure if there is a plot that isn’t the actual characters. That doesn’t make complete sense, but if you’ve read the book, you’ll understand what I mean when I say that the characters are the plot. Again, I don’t mind it, but it’s not a satisfying ending when I’ve suffered through 560 pages and we don’t even get to hear all the secrets the characters kept throughout the novel. I wish that this book was in third person so that I could get a clear picture of what the other characters were thinking and what was in their minds. They are all very complex characters, who make complex choices, and I need to understand those choices and how they defend themselves when they make them.
That takes me to the end of the book. I actually thoroughly enjoyed the end of the novel more than any other part of the story. That may be because I was finally done with it and I could put down this never-ending book, but in reality, the last five pages were the most exciting, important, and fast-paced pages of the entire novel. No joke. There was a complete plot twist that I loved. I wasn’t sure how Tartt would be able to end this book, but she did it perfectly.
Though I also said that the book feels unfinished, the end was good, yet there are still loose ties which had me thinking of several conspiracy theories. For example, the beginning and the middle of the book are so unlike the ending of the novel, purely because of the pace of the book. The last five pages of the book happen so quickly while the rest of the book dragged on and on.
There is also an epilogue that I really enjoyed. I always love epilogues, but this one was truly special. It reminded me of finishing a six season TV show, because you get to see where the characters went after college and their lives after the book ends. There are so many conspiracy theories I have about all of the characters, and it’s fun to make the connections to prior events that happened in the book. This is why rereading The Secret History would be really fun: To pick up on all the foreshadowing that you didn’t see the first time reading.
Though there were only about 15-20 pages I truly enjoyed, I would give The Secret History a ⅖ stars, which is only that high because I enjoyed the ending and epilogue so much.