I remember loving The Secret History when I first read it about twenty years ago, but I don’t remember what exactly I loved about it. This was ages before I kept a book journal, my analog precursor to this book blog, so my impressions are really lost. I picked it up to reread recently because I wanted to pick a crime novel for my book club. While I enjoyed the book this time around, a few things about it wore me down in its over 500 pages.
The book opens with the narrator, Richard Papen’s admission that he’s responsible in part for the murder of one of his classmates many years before. Richard and Bunny were part of an extremely small group of Classics majors at Hampden College in the mountains of Vermont, and the book takes its time uncovering why this group of students murdered one of their own and how it affected them all.
What struck me most about the writing on this reading was the pacing. The first 100 pages felt slightly interminable to me as Richard moved to college and met the group of Classics classmates. I think it’s because I remembered this part of the book the most, so maybe my criticism is unfair. Once the group commits the first murder during a Dionysian ritual, the pacing picks up, but the story drags again for me until the final 100 pages when all of the characters’ motives are fleshed out. There’s an awful lot of drug and alcohol use as the group tries to avoid dealing with the murders they’ve committed.
I think the slightest bit of disappointment I feel about this rereading of the book is because I sort of remembered the twists that were coming, which is part of the pleasure of the book. I’m also far removed from college, which I think has something to do with it too. I realize I was a pretty self-absorbed person during college, but it’s a bit painful to see so much self-absorption in the characters in The Secret History. Besides those criticisms, I’m still very impressed with The Secret History. It’s a very vivid story that captures the academic world and friendships in college quite well, and the mood definitely grabbed me as well: I just think I was more enraptured twenty years ago than I am today.