I’ve read enough books in my life to know not to be swayed by the remarks on the cover. Every book is “enthralling” and “captivating” and “stunning.” I get it.
But friends, The Secret History is all of those things. It is more. Like The Goldfinch, I devoured it in a matter of days, which is saying something since it’s nearly 600 pages. I echo the New York Times review: It is “forced, cerebral, and impeccably controlled.”
In first person, we hear from Richard Papen, our storyteller, main character, and participant in a murder. He’s from an uninteresting blue-collar town in California, where he’s bored and unnoticeable. He pulls together enough funding to attend a small private college in Vermont called Hampden and it’s there that he comes to life among an intimate group of Greek scholars led by a mesmerizing and enchanting professor. He is only the sixth student allowed to be in Julian Morrow’s class, an intoxicating invitation that finally gives him some level of purpose. They create for themselves a secret society. Among the group is Francis, high-strung and wealthy, Henry, the dark, obsessive leader, the attractive and inseparable twins Charles and Camilla, and Edmund, nicknamed Bunny, the obnoxious and unfortunate soul who is killed by his classmates.
This isn’t a spoiler. We know they kill Bunny by the end of the first page. The book is Richard’s retelling of the history – how it happened, why they did it, and, more importantly, what happened after.
It helps to have even the tiniest knowledge of Greek literature so you recognize simple references to the works of Homer, Sophocles, Plato, etc. It’s not necessary, just helpful. Donna Tartt doesn’t talk above our heads, so even if you remember nothing from Philosophy or Ancient Literature class, you’ll be fine.
However, it’s helpful to keep in mind just how screwball Greek characters are, specifically Dionysus, the god of wine and madness.
The writing is masterful. No one can touch it. The hint of one secret is the doorway to the room where everything is laid bare. One secret unravels a hundred secrets and it’s this level of enticement that kept my eyes in the book at every waking moment. You cannot read this book too fast, but nor would you want to. Even now I wish I’d slowed down if only to enjoy it a little longer.