Review: The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

the secret history donna tartt

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Mystery


The Secret History is the story of Richard Papen, a student who finds himself charmed by the small group of professor Julian Morrow studying classics  at University. Slowly, Richard is consumed by their intensity and slips into their obsessions and betrayal.

I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while, and I’ve read so many mixed reviews I was terribly curious. I read If We Were Villains, which was compared a lot to this, so and which I enjoyed, but thought I’d enjoy it more if it had been an adult novel instead. After reading The Secret History, I definitely see the similarities and I’m quite glad I picked it up!

First of all, I listened to this book, which I don’t actually recommend. The writing is so pretentious (on purpose), that it sounds odd and forced when read out loud. If you want to read it, I will highly recommend picking up a physical copy.

The characters are so, so unlikable. I could hardly tolerate any of them, which on the beginning of the book was hard and made me wonder at the wisdom of listening to 22h of a narration I didn’t like about characters I didn’t like, but it got better and better. Every single character is pretentious, vain, narcissistic and varying levels of obnoxious. I started to care about them (although never like them) as the book went on, and got really hooked on the story after maybe 20% of it.

This novel sucks you in much like Richard got sucked in – except we can thankfully keep a healthy distance, also because most readers won’t be pretentious, narcissistic cult members (I assume). So it’s hard to relate to the actions of the characters, but it’s certainly fascinating. The plot is  slow-moving, which at times exasperated me. I did not care enough to know all the little things Richard was thinking or doing.

So I had a mixed bag with this book – engrossing and with unlikable but fascinating characters, but also too slow and hard to relate to any of them. I was at times absolutely absorbed by the book and at others bored or impatient. If you like books about cults and also classics, about relationships becoming obsessive and toxic, I think you’ll like this!

8 thoughts on “Review: The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

  1. I agree with you that the characters are unlikeable. But then if you think about it, Dostoyevsky’s characters are too, and they also commit terrible things. Bret Easton Ellis (Tartt’s friend) and his American Psycho is also an example of a novel where we are forced to follow a character who is a “serial killer”. There is no longer anything wrong with this. The talent of the author is to make the readers sympathise with characters that are very imperfect and even abhorrent. Tartt managed that – few writers can. Tartt’s use of the language is brilliant. It is just so beautifully-written I can copy passages and passages of text in my notebook and re-read it everyday.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I absolutely agree that unlikable characters are pretty common nowadays, and interesting to read about and to sympathize with. I just couldn’t sympathize with these characters in particular – but for example in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood I could feel for the serial killers a lot more. I suppose it’s a matter of personal taste, and also the fact that I listened to the book made it even stranger and, therefore, not easy to relate to. It just sounds odd read out loud.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sometimes I think there must be something wrong with me with the extent to which I adore unlikable characters, because I truly love every single character in this book while also acknowledging that they’re like… the worst ever. But they’re also the BEST?!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you do!! Like I said, listening to this instead of reading was not a good decision. And this hasn’t put me off reading The Goldfinch! Maybe I’ll fall in love with it enough to revisit this book in the future…? And there’s nothing wrong with you. Personal taste is personal taste!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Wrap Up: July 2019 or I might have finally read too many romance novels in a row – I have thoughts on books

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