Rereading The Secret History

secret historyThe Secret History by Donna Tartt
Ballantine, 1992
Source: library

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.

13 thoughts on “Rereading The Secret History

  1. Rebecca – I think it’s fascinating the way we change our views of books as the years go by and we mature, or at least move on to different parts of our lives.. And a real test of whether a book is a classic is how it bears up when one rereads it.

    • It’s definitely interesting to reread things I used to love, and, strangely enough, I can’t find any books written in about the last 30 years that still seem great to me today. It’s time for me to do some digging to find something that meets those criteria, I think 🙂

  2. Some books are just meant to be read at certain points in our lives. I felt that way about The Secret History or Catcher in the Rye. There are others, however, who seem to have an added layer, where I discover something new and different upon reach rereading. ‘Persuasion’ by Jane Austen is one such, or ‘Crime and Punishment’.

  3. I loved this book too, though haven’t re-read it in years, and am concerned I might be disappointed, as you were. I liked her 2nd one, and am looking forward to her new book, out shortly.

  4. I loved this one, even though I was well past student age (!) when I read it. Not so taken with her second I’m afraid – I found it quite disappointing at the time and now remember almost nothing about it, always a bad sign. However, the new one is on pre-order and the fingers are crossed…

  5. If I ever have time to read a book of this size, I’ll try it. I’ve had it on my TBR list for eons, but never seem to have the time.

    • Tartt does write long novels, which is why I never got to The Little Friend and why I’ll probably pass on The Goldfinch until I have an uninterrupted chunk of time. The chapters in The Secret History were quite long too, so it was even more of a reading challenge.

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