Book Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

pendora secret history


by Donna Tartt




I was late to jump on the Donna Tartt bandwagon. The Goldfinch, which I read last year, had me proclaiming to anyone who cared to listen that this was my all-time favourite book. With The Secret History, though, The Goldfinch found itself a fierce competitor.

Seasoned Donna Tartt fans out there know she has a way of pulling you directly into the story. Her books might as well have a pair of massive hands attached to them, physically dragging you closer and throwing you right into the lives of people you don’t yet know. For those not so familiar with her (yet), let me explain.

If you’re not someone who’s persuaded by appealing covers, interesting blurbs or raving reviews, there’s a chance you’ll be enchanted by The Secret History just by glancing at the first page. The first sentence. “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.” It may seem fruitless to commit to a book that tells you from the get-go which character isn’t going to be there for the whole journey. But the thing with The Secret History is: from Tartt’s beautifully constructed sentences (though not ostentatious) and characters that seem so real you expect to bump into them outside your door (though you hope you don’t) to storylines that meander to places you didn’t even know were there, her compelling writing makes you accept that you already know Bunny will die. Even forget about it.

Donna Tartt catapults you into ancient Greek myths while you’re holding the hands of a distinct group of elitist young adults attending an elitist school in Vermont. Their unofficial status as weirdos and their peculiar passion for Ancient Greek makes them quite unapproachable to their peers – and to protagonist Richard Papen. His boyish curiosity, boredom and incessant longing for something more or different, however, cause him to be ensnared in their web. And although at times it appears the group are losing their appeal (which part of you is hoping for, because Richard, get out of there!), an impressionable and arguably confused Richard always finds his way back to them (which you’re also hoping for, because what is up with this group of people?).

The paragraphs that seem unnecessary may well be the ones that you’ll end up loving most. Writing guidelines such as “delete all adverbs and adjectives” and “cut scenes if you don’t need them” don’t apply when you’re as talented as Donna Tartt. She has a way with words, though descriptive, that is so convincing that the rules don’t matter. She makes you part of the world she created, and isn’t that what we all want from a book?

The Secret History is a world filled with drug and alcohol (ab)use, a bunch of elitist, haughty and undeniably irresponsible youths, vague theories and worship, platonic relationships and death – but I recommend you pick up this book right now and give it a read. Say adieu to your friends and family for a while, stack up on food and leave the curtains closed, because the arms that pull you into the lives of Richard Papen and his dysfunctional group of “friends” are very reluctant to let you go again.


Did a BA in English Language and Culture in Groningen, being particularly interested in 19th century literature and modernism. Now works as an editor at a Dutch lifestyle magazine. Escapes from the world in a bundle of blankets and tea, accompanied by books, pen and paper and music.