December 16, 2015

Review | The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History
By Donna Tartt
Published in September, 1992
The Secret History559 Pages
Adult, Thriller, Fiction

Five college students commit murder. They mercilessly kill one of their supposedly best friends. Someone that they used to trust, laugh with, share secrets with, and treat as their own family. But all of that changed over the semester. 
These seemingly ordinary students privately study the Classics with their eccentric teacher. They talk about the philosophies and ideals of Greek and Roman culture, and constantly regret that they cannot live there. Richard, a dream-struck boy from California, falls into their group without the knowledge of the true intentions behind their studies. He must navigate through the new world of college temptations, Greek translations, secrets hidden from him, and the puzzle of who he can trust. But as they learn more about classic culture, they go to extreme measures to replicate the customs of the time. And people get hurt. Murdered actually. 

This is a new twist on the classic mystery/thriller novel. You learn who the killers are and who they killed on the first page, and then the rest of the novel shows how five ordinary college students decided to commit murder. This is not a who-dunnit novel or a guess-who-killed-me novel. This is a psychological evaluation of what it takes to push normal people to killing. This is a story of how an average boy from California became an accomplice to murder and barely even blinked an eye. This is a story about human nature, the price of sin, and the true appearance of evil.

At first, I thought this book was going to be completely about the murder with the whole CSI, detective, and mystery shebang. Which was not what I was expecting. I am a fan of all of the crime and mystery shows, if there is mystery and murder, I am there. If you are expecting a crime novel chronicling the case of a murder, you may not get the most enjoyment out of this book. It took me a couple of chapters to adjust my expectations to match the book. Once I got that down, the rest was pretty much smooth (but slow) sailing. 

Much like The Cuckoo's Nest by Robert Galbraith, this is a slow kind of thriller with a lot of emphasis on the lives of those involved. There is less action and more description. While I did not particularly enjoy that style in The Cuckoo's Nest, I actually grew to like it in The Secret History.

The best way to describe the first half of this book is a very in-depth backstory of a murderer. It sounds creepier than it actually is. The coolest part about this book was the step-by-step detail on how an ordinary person could be pushed to murder. None of my beloved crime shows or movies have gone into so much detail or shown how someone just decides to commit murder. 

I loved the diverse cast of characters in the novel (even though I do wish there was more than one main girl). Every character had their chance in the spotlight and were equally characterized.

One of the downfalls of the novel for me was the constant and unexplained references to obscure Greek and Roman literature. When I read the synopsis of this book, I expected there to be quite a few references to the classic languages and their works, but I did not anticipate the confusion theses references would cause. I will be honest with you--I am not up to date on my Roman and Greek literature. 1.) I do not speak Greek nor Latin. 2.) I have never really wanted to learn either of the languages. 3.) I do not spend my free-time scouring through ancient history texts for information on Greek and Roman culture. 

So, I was a little bit lost during some of the scenes where the technical classics talk came out. I have read and fully enjoyed books that specialized in topics that I do not know a lot about (Ready Player One is the perfect example of this), but The Secret History is not one of those books. Many references and allusions were just thrown out there without adequate, if any, further explanation or connection.

My other major problem with this novel was the pace and the length. The story could have been condensed into 400 pages and still maintain the same detail as before. There were just a lot of unnecessary little parts and scenes that I could not figure out how they contributed to the story. I even resorted to skimming pages toward the end of the novel. In addition to the slow pace, the subject of the book, a slow-burning resentment that eventually escalates into murder, does not make for the fastest plot. Sometimes seemed a little bit drawn out at times.

The writing style was also a little bit unorthodox and uncomfortable in some instances. The style was rather old-fashioned and reminiscent of classic authors, which is great and all, but did not fit the time period or the college-aged characters. There were times when the writing style was completely at odds with the events of the novel. Just imagine Dickens writing about college parties with alcohol, drugs, and relationships. 

I would recommend The Secret History to patient readers who love psychology, murder mysteries, or who are curious to know how a person could be pushed to murder. If you are tired of the same old thriller, I would recommend you pick up The Secret History for a different and refreshing perspective on the classic genre.

Are you a fan of mystery novels? Do you know anything about ancient Greek or Roman culture? Have you ever studied the classic cultures? What do you think pushes people to murder?

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