This week I’ve been reading… The Secret History by Donna Tartt

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This is one of the hardest reviews I’ve had to write. I’ve just come back from a week’s holiday where I read five books in very quick succession. I’d finish one, dive into the pool for five minutes and then dive into another book. No time to reflect or collect my thoughts. And although it’s meant that I’ve come up with lots of interesting comparisons between the five (who would have thought The Virgin Suicides, The Secret History and Breakfast at Tiffany’s could have so much in common?) as standalone books I don’t really know what to say. So I’m just going to start typing and see where it takes me.

I’d been intrigued by Donna Tartt when all the furore about The Goldfinch was happening and then read a few reviews which referred to the detailed descriptive passages and shoved her aside as someone who wasn’t really my kind of author. So what compelled me pick up The Secret History I don’t know. But I did, and I liked the blurb and I bought it. I bought it almost certain that no matter how interested I was in it the odds of me ever getting around to reading it this century were slim. So then how it came to join the hallowed list of books I took on holiday I’m even less sure of. But there it was. And on the very first day I started it.

It was not in anyway what I’d expected. Well actually that’s not true. The plot was almost exactly what I’d expected based on the blurb but I started it convinced it was about a female group of friends and set in the 1930s. I think it was the name Bunny and the idea of an exclusive college that mislead me. And although I was able to quickly adjust my expectations of the gender of the characters I was still reassessing the time period until right up at the end. And actually even now I’ve finished it I’m not 100% sure. But I assumed the late 1980s.

The synopsis on Goodreads describes it as:

Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last – inexorably – into evil.

which is pretty accurate, although it overstates the involvement of the professor, who is a secondary character at most.

When I look back on this book I remember liking it but never being exactly hooked. I read it because when you spend your days lying by the pool there’s little else to do but I think had I been reading it while still in Leicester, fitting in time to read between work, chores and TV I would yet to have got beyond the first three chapters. I read Breakfast at Tiffany’s immediately afterwards which fitted in almost as much plot in 1/6th of the word count. But that might just be my personal preference for books that go along at a reasonable clip.

And unlike Breakfast at Tiffany’s the characters never felt fully formed. So much is hinted at about what’s going on underneath the surface – the relationship between Camilla and Charles, the jealousy of Bunny, the potential evil intentions of Henry towards Richard – but nothing is ever explicitly said. And again that might just be personal preference but I thought the end was something of a cop out.

Overall, am I glad I read it? Perhaps not. When I think of what I could have been reading in the time I was dedicating to this book I rather resent it.

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