Review: The Secret History

I don’t know where to begin or how to write a proper review for this book. I believe The Secret History is considered a contemporary classic because it has many layers that can be peeled off — just to reveal more layers underneath. An in-depth analysis can result from a literary and philosophical point of view. If you’re looking forward to such an analysis, I am sorry to disappoint you.

Here goes my attempt at a review, anyway.

In simple terms, the story is about a murder. But it goes beyond that, the main themes being morality, guilt, social class, illusion, and the way beauty and horror correlate. Is an action truly wrong if the motives were for the right reasons? What can drive the seemingly cold-hearted characters to the verge of madness?

The characters were morally grey and privileged. I couldn’t empathize with them, as they were aware of their actions and possible consequences, but proceeded regardless. They went down a rabbit hole that soon became a bad omen. But the purpose of this book is not to provide us with likable characters we can be fond of, quite the opposite. It simply reveals their ugly truths hidden behind seemingly perfect facades. It’s the reason why the main character, Richard Papen, is an unreliable narrator — although it becomes more visible towards the end.

Donna Tartt’s writing was remarkable and impeccable. Reading this book felt like floating in the middle of Richard’s idyllic memories. Words that embrace the pages and transform into vivid images. Detailed descriptions, a dark atmospheric setting and gothic elements. This entire book is a mood by itself.

As for the plot, it started off well but then slowed down significantly. If you like fast-paced and plot-driven mysteries, The Secret History may not be for you. But if you’re looking forward to a character-driven novel in a disturbing setting, I highly recommend it.

My final rating is 4.5 / 5.

I’ve made it my rule of thumb to only give 5 stars to books that make me cry or that deeply affect me on an emotional level. This was not the case, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t become a new favorite of mine. I suspect I’ll be rereading it at some point, sooner or later.

“Forgive me, for all the things I did but mostly for the ones that I did not.”

Donna Tartt, The Secret History


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