Book Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Beauty is rarely soft or consolatory. Quite the contrary. Genuine beauty is always quite alarming.

Ah, The Secret History by Donna Tartt is it: the ultimate dark academia novel. The kind of book that will leave you dreaming of looming library halls, ink-stained hands, sleeplessness and black coffee. The novel that popularized the dark academia subculture and romanticized the college aesthetic. It is difficult, in retrospect, to explain exactly what the novel is about. “A group of extraordinary college kids get wrapped up in murder”, while capturing the basic essence of it, is nowhere near capable of doing justice to every aspect of this that I enjoyed.

The story begins with our everyman protagonist Richard, who receives a ticket out of the dissatisfaction and prosaic ordinariness of his life when he leaves home to attend the elite Hampden College in Vermont. At his new school, he becomes enraptured by a small, enigmatic group of Classics students being taught in a very exclusive and isolated class led by their professor, Julian Morrow. Enrollment into the class is restricted, separating this group of students from the rest of the population at Hampden College and creating an aura of mysterious intrigue that Richard can’t help but feel drawn towards. When he finally manages to enroll in the class, he is immediately taken in by the other students – wealthy, decadent, and deeply intelligent, they represent to Richard an irresistible picture of the kind of life he’s always wanted, spooled with luxurious excess and intellectual energy.

These students, who eventually become his friend group, seem in every way to be slightly removed from normal people. Obsessed with the world of Classics and mythology, they know and care very little about modern society. An example of this is when someone mentions the moon landing, and these bona fide geniuses are shocked and bewildered by the possibility of a man walking on the moon. The things they argue and philosophize about would probably get them weird looks anywhere, and even the stylish flamboyancy of their dress sense solidifies this idea of them being unattainably elite. This group dynamic is part of what makes the novel so captivating to readers – who wouldn’t want to be part of such a whimsical, refined, powerful group of intellectuals? Leave it to Donna Tartt to make academia look sexy as hell.

Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.

The big turn of events happens when this group, Richard included, find themselves entangled in a murder case. I’ll leave out the details to avoid spoilers, but this is where the real strength of The Secret History comes into play. The horrific acts they commit create deep fissures within the group, and one by one the psychological weight of what they’ve done leads to their unraveling. Donna Tartt does an excellent job of slowly, slowly taking Richard’s (and the reader’s) blinkers off until he begins to discard his romanticized perceptions of his friends and sees them for what they really are.

Some things are too terrible to grasp at once. Other things – naked, sputtering, indelible in their horror – are too terrible to really grasp ever at all. It is only later, in solitude, in memory that the realization dawns: when the ashes are cold; when the mourners have departed; when one looks around and finds oneself – quite to one’s surprise – in an entirely different world.

The role of beauty is a recurrent theme in this novel. The power that it has to dazzle and blind us, obscuring dark and ugly truths. I think this idea is explored very cleverly in The Secret History through Richard. It is too easy to empathize with his getting swept away by his alluring, secretive group of friends, to the point where he overlooks critical red flags because of how enamored he is by them. It takes a lot, and I mean a lot, for him to finally take those rose-tinted glasses off and accept reality.

Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.

Overall, my review can just be summed up with: I absolutely loved this. It contained such loving, beautiful language, such an absorbing and well-paced storyline, such fascinating and flawed characters! Every scene is described with cinematic elegance, and every character enriched in overlapping, mirroring shades of grey; such that no one can be considered to be fully good nor truly evil. Richard is an aesthete with a penchant for romanticizing the world around him, something that lent the narration of the story a gorgeously dreamlike quality throughout. Allusions to Greek tragedy and philosophy, the thematic explorations, everything is just so artfully and gorgeously done. I think that while this novel was ambitious, it manages to exceed its own expectations in a wonderful way. I would reread this a million times, if I could.

Have you read The Secret History? What did you think of it?

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