The Secret History

I don’t quite know why it took me so long to realize it, but I love a good mystery—the subtle sense of danger, the page-turning pace, the questions of how and why. I think for a long time I thought of the Mysteries section at the library the same way I thought about the Romance section and even Fantasy, in that I, as a serious person, read serious books by serious writers and those writers weren’t sent to mingle in such subsections. Serious books were with the rest of the fiction where they’d at least have a chance of sitting on the shelf next to a Hemingway or a Brontë. But as I’ve gotten older, I hold myself to far less rigid standards. Great writing takes all forms. You just have to know where to look.

When it comes to mystery, I think Donna Tartt’s The Secret History might be one such place to start. The story hits you with full force from the very first sentence on the very first page:

“The snow in the mountains was was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

Immediately, we know where we are and begin to see where we are going.

Our protagonist is aimless, small-town boy Richard Papen, whose older, wiser self narrates the story. He tells us of his junior year of college at an elite liberal arts school tucked away in the mountains of Vermont. There, he manages to ingratiate himself with a group of misfit students in an exclusive Greek program. But the more intertwined he becomes in the lives of the others, the more things start to unravel.

The Secret History does not feel like a beach read. It does not read breezily. Instead, it is a book to bury yourself in. It’s a book suited for the dead of winter, and it’s the book I read throughout back-to-back polar vortexes. With the first page telling us the “who” and some chapters later giving us the “why” the central interest in The Secret History comes from our need to see the full picture. How is this resolved? Where do these characters end up?

That said, it was missing some of the immediacy I’ve come to love when reading mysteries. While I was eager to see where the story would go, I didn’t fly through the novel. Thoughts of it didn’t dominate my mind, and it was easy to set it down for a day before picking it back up again.

I admit, I was a little disappointed at this, though I don’t really blame the book. I enjoyed it thoroughly, but my expectations got in the way. It was hard to adjust to a book that felt more like the literary fiction I was intending to take a break from than the lightning quick read I thought I was about to get.

Overall, some sections moved a bit slower than other, but nothing really felt superfluous. The book’s language is rich and packed with Greek literary allusion (which I am not ashamed to admit regularly flew over my head). The characters are largely all terribly unlikeable people who do unspeakable things. There is, quite simply, a lot going on in it, and I think a second read might do me good on this one.

Even though it’s not quite what I expected, I’m glad I read this before trying The Goldfinch. If you walk into it prepared for its intricate language and a somewhat slower than rapid fire pace, I think you’ll be as happy as I was.