Title: The Secret History
Author: Donna Tartt
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Published: 16 September 1992
This book has been on my TBR for ages, and I was so excited to read it. Unfortunately, that excitement didn’t last long. While I love dark academia books, and the plot was engaging, there was never any connection to the characters. It was difficult to find a redeeming quality in any of these characters.
Before we get there, a quick summary. The story is set in a New England college campus that centers on a close knit of six classics students at Hampden College, a small, elite liberal arts college located in Vermont (based on Bennington College, where Tartt went to school). Richard Papen is the narrator of the story, reflecting years later upon the situation that led to the murder of their friend Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran. While the events are told sequentially, there are sections that show present-day Richard exploring his own thoughts and what made him take the choices he did.
So, my issues with the book mostly lie with the characters themselves. Starting with Richard, as he is the narrator, he reminded me of Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby. A quiet, young man who is set adrift in this lurid group. He’s unobtrusive and tolerant, never willing to rock the boat of what happens in the group, therefore much of the group confides in him. Throughout the novel he flits back and forth on his feelings for each character, even though most of them are not really worth his time.
Take Bunny for instance, I never liked him. Even from the beginning he is a horrible, manipulative, toxic person who only cares about himself. The first real interaction Richard has with Bunny is when they go out for lunch on Saturday. As the waiter takes them to their table, Bunny says “Maitre d’. Big old fellow with moustaches, Austrian or something. And not” – he lowered his voice to a loud whisper – “not a f**, either, if you can believe that. Queers love to work in restaurants, have you even noticed that? I mean, every single f**-“ And I’m supposed to what have any positive feelings towards him. Of course, no one deserves to be murdered for being an asshole. Maybe a swift kick to the groin area or a punch or two. But with typical murder stories, there is usually something to make the readers have sympathy for the victim, which in this story I do not have any real sympathy for Bunny. Minus the fact that he’s a human being and shouldn’t be murdered.
The other characters aren’t better or worse, more annoying then anything else. Francis seems to just follow along, while Camilla and Charles have a weird, incestuous relationship and need a ton of therapy. Henry is the other character that I really wanted to slap as I read the book. Henry is cocky and rude, and while he has some reason to be cocky, he still treats his friends pretty crappy. I definitely think he left those clues about the murder of the farmer for Richard to find, and then mocks him when he says, something like yeah, of course, you found out cause you’re so smart. Henry was the manipulative jerk who orchestrates most of what happened to the farmer and subsequently to Bunny, to save his own skin. Even afterwards, when Charles was horribly suffering from what happened and escaped into alcohol, Henry tells him to get over it and to stop worrying.
By the end, I was glad to be finished with the book. The characters are all just either assholes (Henry & Bunny) or annoying & passive (Francis, Camilla, Charles, and Richard). Morally grey characters are great when they’re actually morally grey and there is something the readers can root for.
The actual story and plot were fascinating and did keep me reading, but this is not a book I’d recommend or go back to re-read.
Happy Reading Darlings!