The Secret History

Apparently The Secret History by Donna Tartt is quite a famous book. Apparently, people read it in high school. Not much in North America, as far as I can tell, but often in Britain. Which is odd, because it’s a very American book, in my opinion. It mimics books like Catcher in the Rye and the Great Gatsby. It is full of their themes, of their types of characters. Of their discoveries.

The first part of The Secret History was very good. The plot starts with the narrator joining a small Greek class at an elite arts college, handpicked by a professor who is charismatic, mildly famous and quite the classicist. The parts in the beginning where they talk about classics, either Greek translation or classical plays, were my favourite. I thought surely the plot would follow some sort of classical theme, and I was ready for it. I got all the references they were making, and I loved it.

Then the book suddenly turned into a murder mystery and abandoned the idea of classics all together for most of the novel, save a few brief references. I found the plot intriguing, and wanted to see how it ended, but there was definitely a part in the middle of this very long (629 pages!) book that I was bored and had no idea where they were going with it. Then the ending was good, especially the epilogue.

I had higher hopes for this book than panned out, but it was still a good read.

My favourite lines, mostly from the beginning:

“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.”

“There is to me about this place a smell of rot, the smell of rot that ripe fruit makes. Nowhere, ever, have the hideous mechanics of birth and copulation and death - those monstrous upheavals of life that the Greeks call miasma, defilement - been so brutal or painted up to look so pretty; have so many people put so much faith in lies and mutability and death death death.”

“‘After all, what are the scenes in poetry graven on our memories, the ones that we love the most? Precisely these. The murder of Agamemnon and the wrath of Achilles. Dido on a funeral pyre. The daggers of the traitors and Caesar’s blood - remember how Suetonius describes his body being borne away on the litter, with one arm hanging down?’
‘Death is the mother of beauty,’ said Henry.
‘And what is beauty?’
‘Well said,’ said Julian. ‘Beauty is rarely soft or consolatory. Quite the contrary. Genuine beauty is always quite alarming.’”


  • By Sebastian, January 9, 2010 @ 4:39 am

    Ah, I didn’t know it was popular in British schools here! That would explain why my friend had it, and sent it to me…

    Fine choice of quotes. I dog-eared two out of three!

  • By Shaun, January 9, 2010 @ 1:28 pm

    The book has much more of an impact when you read it before you study classics, its what made me want to study classics in the first place It was taken off the school sylibus several years ago and has never been put back on as far as I know which is an awful shame since Harry Potter is there now instead…

  • By Sebastian, January 9, 2010 @ 4:49 pm

    Yay, Harry Potter…

    I just can’t believe the book didn’t spend more time on, you know, the whole RITUAL stuff. Bah.

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