The Secret History by Donna Tartt Book Review


I introduced myself to Donna Tartt late in 2016 with The Goldfinch, a tiring and stunning book that showed Tartt’s writing to be worthwhile. The Secret History continues this legacy of Tartt’s (this was written before The Goldfinch, but in my reading itinerary, it came after).

In the same style as The Goldfinch, The Secret History tells an incredibly personal story via mystery, intrigue, lengthy and poetic sentences, and twists that make one pause, sometimes for days, to get their bearings. The novel begins in prologue, a retrospective narrator revealing the entire twisted plot within the first paragraph: a man named Bunny dead after a fall, his body waiting to be found in a ravine, the fault of which belongs to the narrator and a few other unnamed friends (“us”). I love that Tartt began the novel this way, revealing the crux of the plot right away before we are even introduced to Bunny, to the narrator. Despite the prologue, despite the warning of what’s to come, readers forget; they develop a love for Bunny anyway, ignore the thought that Richard, our narrator, and his group of quirky, intelligent friends are murderers. Tartt, in The Secret History, shows how confusing one human being can be- so much darkness, so much light, no real room for making a judgment.

“But walking through it all was one thing; walking away, unfortunately, has proved to be quite another, and though once I thought I had left that ravine forever on an April afternoon long ago, now I am not so sure.”

“I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will be able to tell.”

Our narrator, Richard Papen, explains his humble origins (from a middle-class town in California, bored with his domestic life alongside his boring family, seeks solace in college in New England, where he must pretend to be from money and intellect). Richard’s fears are palpable; I felt myself in his descriptions, his ruminations on what it meant to be an academic. The Imposter Syndrome he describes is something I think any middle-class young adult who moves across the country into an intellectual pursuit feels. Although he deserves to be on campus, in classes, although he makes the grades sometimes above all others, something in him tells him ‘you do not belong.’ That in juxtaposition with the deeper desire to belong makes for a dangerous combination, ripe with chances of despair.

At the beginning of his college career, Richard debates on what to study. He has taken Greek language courses previously, but is told at his arrival to Hampden that the Greek program is not open to him, as admission is incredibly selective, and the professor (Julian Moore) and his pupils are not looking for another member. Richard takes notice of this group, sees them on campus together often, and understands them at once to be unreachable yet longs, again, to be a part of them. The Imposter, trying to make friends. Richard’s determination to enter into the Greek program forces Julian to accept him, and soon Richard finds himself amongst the people he has admired from afar. Richard’s first Julian class is full of philosophical tangents, unanswerable questions somehow met with ripe answers:

“Why does that obstinate little voice in our heads torment us so? Could it be because it reminds us that we are alive, of our mortality, of our individual souls- which, after all, w are too afraid to surrender but yet make us feel more miserable an any other thing? But isn’t it also pain that often makes us most aware of self? It is a terrible thing to learn as a child that one is a being separate from the world, that no one and no thing hurts along with one’s burned tongues and skinned knees, that one’s aches and pains are all one’s own. Even more terrible, as we grow older, to learn that no one person, no matter how beloved, can ever truly understand us.”

This language is glorious, inspires me to go back to philosophy and literature until the end of time. But what also comes from this lecture is a slightly alarming conversation, one that now, in hindsight, feels especially concerning: “’And if beauty is terror, then what is desire? We think we have many desires, but in fact we have only one. What is it?’ ‘To live,’ said Camilla. ‘To live forever,’ said Bunny.”

There is a definite cult-following surrounding Julian; Camilla, Charles, Frances, Bunny, and Henry all seem to trust and believe in Julian’s lessons, viewing his word as the ultimate truth. Such adoration, such searches for absolute morality and truth, are so, so dangerous. Can young people really afford to be this smart? To question such things as Julian is asking them to? Can such smart people exist without becoming completely absorbed in discovering what no one, not even the ancient philosophers, have discovered? And, what may be the most important question of all, if such a truth is discovered, can human beings handle it?

Richard grows closer to each member of this group, feeling more a part of it each day. He takes up drinking and smoking regularly, finds it easier to excel at the part of the Imposter without feeling completely drowned by the role- “I suppose there is a certain crucial interval in everyone’s life when character is fixed forever; for me, it was that first fall term I spent at Hampden.”

Although Richard enjoys his blossoming friendship with the Greek class, he also begins picking up on questionable behavior: overheard snippets of conversation that are hushed when he walks into the room, mentions of blood-soaked, muddy clothes, and finally distance from the group, an effort on their part to ignore Richard’s phone calls. “It is easy to see things in retrospect. But I was ignorant then of everything but my own happiness, and I don’t know what else to say except that life itself seemed very magical in those days; a web of symbol, coincidence, premonition, omen. Everything, somehow, fit together; some sly and benevolent Providence was revealing itself by degrees and I felt myself trembling on the brink of a fabulous discovery, as though any morning it was all going to come together- my future, my past, the whole of my life- and I was going to sit up in bed like a thunderbolt and say oh! Oh! Oh!”

This feeling is another that I recognize, that I can pin-point on the map of my young life, one that I could find the exact coordinates of (Ashland, Ohio, where a part of my young, vibrant, eager soul, lived entirely, and, I think, died). Anything feels possible when you’re young and half in love (he with Camilla), and with a group of people you finally feel like you deserve. Richard believes he has finally found his place, his people, his values; why take heed of the warnings? Even the negative feels like a high, impossible to comprehend as an Imposter who may no longer be an imposter. Richard spends time describing the places the group spent time in and came to love one another, especially the country house of Frances’ parents: “if I had grown up in that house I couldn’t have loved it more, couldn’t have been more familiar with the creak of the swing, or the pattern of the clematis vine on the trellis, or the velvety swell of land as it faded to gray on the horizon, and the strip of the highway visible- just barely- in the hills, beyond the trees. The very color of the place had seeped into my blood: just as Hampden, in subsequent years, would always present itself immediately to my imagination in a confused whirl of white and green and red, so the country house first appeared as a glorious blur of watercolors, of ivory and lapis blue, chestnut and burnt orange and gold, separating only gradually into the boundaries of remembered objects: the house, the sky, the maple trees. But even that day, there on the porch, with Charles beside me and the smell of wood smoke in the air, it had the quality of a memory; there it was, before my eyes, and yet too beautiful to believe. The idea of living there, of not having to go back ever again to asphalt and shopping malls and modular furniture; of living there with Charles and Camilla and Henry and Francis and maybe even Bunny; of no one marrying or going home or getting a job in a town a thousand miles away or doing any of the traitorous things friends do after college; of everything remaining exactly as it was, that instant- the idea was so truly heavenly that I’m not sure I thought, even then, it could ever really happen.” I felt this way with my own college friends; a tremendously strong and harsh awareness that the loveliness I’d come to know, to sit comfortably in, was ending, combined with a mystifying air that felt as if an end could never come. It’s a special time, this. But it’s also tragic. It took me years to realize that the tragic feeling, albeit terrible and destructive and at times romanticized, is worth it. I think Richard comes to learn this too, despite.

The next section of the book describes Richard navigating Hampden separated from his Greek classmates. As they distance themselves, Richard meets others- he has a one night stand, flirts with the next door neighbor girl, participates in the drug and alcohol scene, etc. He always, though, questions why the group has abandoned him. That is until one night in which he breaks into Henry’s apartment, and finds receipts for four tickets to Argentina. Confused, Richard stops communicating with the group, aware that something is awry. Eventually, Henry approaches Richard, and reveals the truth, a dark truth scarier and more grotesque than any reader would expect. The four tried to escape but soon realized they didn’t have enough money, mostly due to Bunny’s incessant borrowing habits; they sought to escape, to be on the run, away from Bunny and Hampden. The group had committed murder (Camilla, Charles, Francis, Henry)- an accidental occurrence, a farmer who had stumbled upon the four students as they were at peak levels of tripping, crazed by visions of Dionysus and the beyond. As Henry explains to Richard, they were trying to achieve Bakcheia, a concept Julian had taught them in class- Dionysiac frenzy. Henry wanted to reach this, as no one had for thousands of years. The group tried and failed multiple times with alcohol, drugs, etc, but nothing got them there. As they got closer, Bunny began to doubt; the group pushed him out and committed themselves to fasting, to praying, to taking drugs. Eventually, the group succeeds- they see Dionysus, they reach Bakcheia. As they reach it, however, a farmer arrives. The group, dazed and drugged, barely remembers his arrival, and eventually, his dead body lies beneath them. As Henry notes, the murder helped their goal: “it was heart-shaking. Glorious.” Although Bunny did not participate in the event, due to the group snubbing him, when the news breaks that the farmer was murdered, Bunny indicates that he knows the truth. He begins asking for more and more money, and begins to, as Henry suspects, blackmail them. The group becomes incessantly paranoid, afraid that if they don’t give to Bunny, he’ll rat.  Henry mentions that he can rid the group of this nagging worry, if everyone is willing. Richard notes: “it’s funny, but thinking back on it now, I realize that this particular point n time, as I stood there blinking in the deserted hall, was the one point at which I might have chosen to do something very different from what I actually did. But of course I didn’t see this crucial moment then for what it was; I suppose we never do. Instead, I only yawned, and shook myself from the momentary daze that had come upon me, and went on my way.” Again, Richard recognizes the sense of wrongness, but his desire to win out over his Imposter syndrome wins again; it is so hard, maybe impossible, to give up that which has made us feel at home.

As disturbing as the first murder was to read about (we eventually discover that the farmer was murdered brutally, with his intestines pulled out and blood everywhere), the next section of the novel reads as even more so. Bunny, aware that the group is no longer his, becomes dangerous. He drinks often, spends much of Henry’s money, and skips class. He flirts with the death of the farmer, taunting the group with what he knows in front of anyone, even Julian. “Bunny is a problem,” Henry notes, and reveals to Richard and the reader his intention: murder Bunny to hide themselves from their first murder. At first, Richard is appalled by this idea- he’s far away from it, wasn’t involved in the first; but, yet again, Richard’s love for these people wins out. As disturbed as he is, disgusted even, it is he who leads the group to the act itself. It’s he who tells them which direction Bunny will be walking and when. The group waits for Bunny at his walking path, and when Bunny sees them, he again pokes fun at what they’ve done, calling them deerslayers. Henry steps toward Bunny, and pushes him. Bunny falls to his death, an act of fulfillment that the prologue introduced. It still shocks the reader, no matter the forewarning; that a group of intelligent people would murder their best friend, quickly and assuredly. The darkness eclipsing all of the light- and yet still, there is light, Still, we love Frances for his anxious empathy, we love Henry for his stoic curiosity, we love Charles for his charm, we love Camilla for her mystery, and we love Richard for all of the things he cannot see about himself. So much light, so much dark.

After Bunny’s death, days pass before police start looking for his body. It’s a disastrous period marked by the group drinking and smoking excessively, blacking out at odd hours and skipping class. Finally, search partiers all around Vermont are deployed to find the missing boy. And still it drags on, the body still missing, Bunny’s ghost already starting to haunt them. Each group member struggles in a different way; Francis in the hospital, Charles with alcohol, Camilla withdrawing, Henry taking the leadership role and planning strategy to avoid police questioning, Richard a mixture of all. In the midst, Richard falls more in love with Camilla, and grows more paranoid by the day that they will be found out, charged with murder. Eventually the body is found and a funeral is held, an awkward and painful affair that involves Bunny’s hysterical father, awkward conversations with Marion (Bunny’s girlfriend), and stealing Bunny’s mother’s drugs. Of the service, Richard remarks: “Somehow I had thought there would be more than this. This is stupid, I thought, with a sudden rush of panic. How did this happen? Bun, oh Bun, I’m sorry.” He also remembers his friend: “he hadn’t seen it coming at all. He hadn’t even understood, there wasn’t time. Teetering back as if on the edge of the swimming pool; comic yodel, windmilling arms. Then the surprised nightmare of falling. Someone who didn’t know there was such a thing in the world as death; who couldn’t believe it even when he saw it; had never dreamed it would come to him.”

After the funeral, discord mounts. The twins get into some kind of mysterious argument and eventually, Camilla moves out into a hotel room. Charles starts to drink even more than normal, eventually arrested on DUI charges for which Henry’s money has to bail him out. The group becomes reckless, and Henry stresses, copes with the encroaching police attention and general paranoia of the group. He keeps Richard mostly in the dark about this, until Francis reveals to Richard what has happened amongst the group: Charles hit Camilla due to jealousy, for the twins have slept together repeatedly for years. More than that, his jealousy was because of Henry, and the hidden romance the two shared. In her hotel room (which Henry paid for), Camilla quietly fell harder for Henry, as her brother starved himself in a hospital bed. Richard begins abusing drugs, feeling the incredible pressure and paranoia coming to a head. He is positive the group will be discovered. Henry admits during this period of discord that committing the first murder was beneficial for him: “it enabled me o do what I’ve always wanted most. To live without thinking.”

The group’s relationship with Julian also becomes at risk; he asks Francis, Henry, and Richard to lunch, where Julian shows them a letter from Bunny that showed up in his mailbox randomly, a letter which he believes is a cruel prank. The letter details that the group is dangerous and that Bunny himself is in danger of being murdered. Julian disbelieves this letter entirely; but to Richard’s horror, the letter is written on stationery from the Italian hotel Bunny stayed in with Henry. He does his best to hide this post mark from Julian, but he sees it anyway, realizing the diabolical and sinister truth of the letter. After this, the group’s relationship with Julian falters- he goes missing, resigns from his post at Hampden, and vanishes. Henry remains confident in Julian’s trust, sure he’ll remain silent. Richard, however, remains broken, scarred by his realization that yet another person knows of his lack of goodness. Richard remembers his professor in this way: “It’s funny. In retelling these events, I have fought against a tendency to sentimentalize Julian to make him seem very saintly- basically to falsify him- in order to make our venerations of him seem more explicable; to make it seem something more, in short, than my own fatal tendency to try to make interesting people good. And I know I said earlier that he was perfect but he wasn’t perfect, far from it; he could be silly and vain and remote and often cruel and still we loved him, in spite of, because.” And this is the conundrum of the novel itself; you love in spite of and because. Always.

The novel comes to a dramatic finale in the midst of Richard’s panic, Charles’ depression and rage. Frances and Richard visit Henry and Camilla in her hotel room, where Henry alarmingly references killing Charles as a way to rid the threat (Charles, in his anger and jealousy, has become more of a threat to their secrecy than Bunny perhaps ever was). As Henry makes this remark, Charles himself steps into the room, holding a gun at the group. Charles announced to the group, gun ready, that they should have never listened to Henry, that he is the downfall of the group and their secret. He gives the indication that keeping the secret is no longer a priority; that Henry has ruined his life so severely that not a thing matters anymore, especially remaining/feigning his own innocence. The gun fires four rapid shots, one of which hits Richard in the stomach. The group anticipates the inn-keepers arrival, knows that their facade is over, that they must answer to all of their crimes. Henry calls Camilla to his side, Charles’ gun in his hand. He kisses her twice, tells her he loves her, and shoots himself, just as the door opens.

The Secret History’s epilogue is just as mysterious and beautiful as the prologue. The language is poetic and dark, just as heart-wrenching and tragic as the prologue and epilogue that I remember from The Goldfinch. I love Tartt’s usage of heartache, how every word throughout the epilogue seeps of nostalgia and what ifs. Henry dies in the hospital not long afterward, and Richard ruminates on what he views as Henry’s unnecessary sacrifice: “it wasn’t from desperation that he did it. Nor, I think, was it fear. The business with Julian was heavy on his mind; it had impressed him deeply. I think he felt the need to make a noble gesture, something to prove to us and to himself that it was in fact possible to put those high cold principles which Julian taught us to use. Duty, piety, loyalty, sacrifice. I remember his reflection in the mirror as he raised the pistol to his head. His expression was one of rapt concentration, of triumph, almost, a high diver rushing to the end of the board; eyes tight, joyous, waiting for the big splash. I think about it quite a bit, actually, that look on his face. I think about a lot of things. I think about the first time I ever saw a birch tree; about the last time I saw Julian; about the first sentence that I ever learned in Greek: Beauty is harsh.” The epilogue is fast-paced afterwards, explaining Richard’s hasty graduation from Hampden and his move to California with Sophie, a girl he almost married. He lost touch with Francis and the twins, until years later when Francis sent a suicide letter. Richard travels to Boston to visit Francis, whose suicide failed; also there is Camilla, the faraway love of Richard’s life. As Camilla readies herself to leave, Richard finally admits his love: “I love you. Don’t leave. Let’s get married.” to which Camilla responds: “I can’t marry you. Because I love Henry.” Desperate and confused, ashamed that a ghost has more power than he does, Richard says: “I loved him, too,” to which Camilla closes the circle: “I know you did. But it’s not enough.”

“The rain stayed with me all the way back to California. An abrupt departure, I knew, would be too much; if I was to leave the East at all, I could do so only gradually and so I rented a car, and drove and drove until finally the landscape changed, and I was in the Midwest, and the rain was all I had left of Camilla’s goodbye kiss. Raindrops on the windshield, radio stations fading in and out. Cornfields bleak in all those gray, wide-open reaches. I had said goodbye to her once before, but it took everything I had to say goodbye to her then, again, for the last time, like poor Orpheus turning for a last backwards glance at the ghost of his only love and in the same heartbeat losing her forever; hence those tears.”

Richard wraps up the novel by explaining what each character has done since. He ends with explaining a dream he had in which he again met Henry. In Henry fashion he notes: “I’m not dead, I’m only having a bit of trouble with my passport.”

This ending surprised me. Richard remains hypnotized with the past, unhappy and stuck. His loneliness is something that even Henry’s ghost recognizes. And dream-Henry provides no escape from this, offers no answer- he notes his friend’s unhappiness, and excuses himself from the dream. The novel leaves us with no answer- just a secret history, a dark and brutal tale that alters everyone involved, forever.

And perhaps that’s all that any of us ever have- stories, both dark and light. Stories that change us, that impact our lives and enable to us to live in a more beautiful, more severe, more twisted way.


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