Not a Review of The Secret History

Bear with my first attempt in long years at a true essay. It devolved, very fast, into a bit of a ramble. I tried to reign it in…

Occasionally, I read a book that incites a need to comment rather than simply review. I write some reviews, usually when a book has a lower readership, and I want to help spread the word about it, but those are simple words from the gut; first impressions and feelings with little deep-diving. The Secret History is a book that has led me to be a bit more editorial. Not even the book, but rather the current popularity surrounding it. Yet again, it has me asking why certain books grab mass attention while others do not? What makes us love the books we love?

On Donna Tartt’s The Secret History

including a few comparisons that underline the question: why

I’m the kind of reader who likes to know the least amount about a book before I read it. How do I choose what to read, you ask? Sometimes, a single quote or great review—more likely, a terrible review—will compel me to pick up a book. A library recommendation, a pretty cover, or a great title. It’s so much about timing and things too abstract to quantify. I think that makes me a mood reader, but I’m not that concerned with labeling this part of my life to determine it.

Social Media’s algorithms currently love The Secret History. It crossed my feed enough times I finally picked it up (B&N’s BOGO 50% helped with that too). Within the first pages, I realized this was not a new book. Curious about why a book from 1992 is hitting charts, I put the book down to see why. I searched: ‘why is The Secret History still a favorite.’ One answer spoke of identifying with a feeling of isolation. Another spoke of our desire to belong to an elitist group, while a third remark spoke of friendship. There were a handful of other answers, but these stuck with me as I read Donna Tartt’s debut. As I read, I also found myself comparing it with The Goldfinch and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow (which I just read).

While I liked The Secret History very much, I found it bloated. I found the term “friend” grossly inadequate, as few of the members of Julian’s class seemed more than forced acquaintances. Only Henry and Camilla’s pseudo-secret relationship was something more than a barely tolerated association. Richard even hears from each of them how the others aren’t that fond of him. Either explanation for this, whether truth or jealousy, begs the question of how well any of them were “friends.” That’s not to say each character wasn’t likable, at least as their part in the story is concerned. In reality, I wouldn’t have tolerated any of them as a friend of mine. They weren’t upstanding people, but rather interesting characters who propelled this drama. As this question of friendship was a highlighted point about the book’s likability, I beg the question: what about these “friends” drew readers in?

While an underlying sense of dread starts from the first page that keeps us intent on finding out how and what and who, it is the same magic Tartt uses in The Goldfinch with much more mastery. Of course, after writing this opinion, I went and read reviews and essays about The Goldfinch. Apparently, I have no idea what makes a good book. According to the critiques, The Goldfinch is about story, not character; therefore, it’s trash. Except, I liked it better. I thought Theo had more character than Richard, who we only know because he tells us. Richard says he’s a liar, though I can’t recall a point in dialogue when he does. He tells us he loves Camilla, though there is so little interaction on the page between them it seems impossible to be more than a boy’s crush (is that the point?). Julian, a supposed heavy influence, a ‘father figure,’ barely exists. Again, we only know how the “friends” feel about their teacher and mentor because we’re told. And while not necessarily a point against the book, the blurb implies some dark machinations at the hands of the Greek influence in their lives that seems manipulatively overstated. Is it a point that creates circumstance? Yes. Is it part of the story? No.

This tension both books share from their onset is threaded onto every page of The Goldfinch. Theo is isolated, handling his stress alone, though in the same alcohol and drug-induced haze as the Hamden students of The Secret History, whose theme of separateness happens surrounded by peers. Stress that culminates in tangible events. Events I felt missing in The Secret History. But History takes place with a group, while Goldfinch is a story about a singular character. And we’re back to this point about “friends.” As I said, I would love to hear more about this distinction because I’m not sure my definition of “friend” coincides. Maybe, that’s the point. That the friends aren’t. That this ‘not’ is the relatable part.

Another book I feel lays bare this human condition in much clearer terms is Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow. Both The Secret History and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow are books social media algorithms currently love. Both are full of this sense of isolation inside a group and lose a bit of what they are in the telling. Both are just too long. Both seem to drift off as if their subtly is so delicate, drawing out the theme has made it too damaged to let fade, so it must be severed or fall to pieces. I love that readers are reading and enjoying these books. I enjoyed them. I gave both The Secret History and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow four stars. It’s only in this over-analyzation that their flaws come through. I never meant to speak badly of them, only to ask why we love them over others. When I see mostly romance and YA saturating my feeds, I forget the average reader might actually read other books, too. It’s nice to see I’m not the only one with varying tastes.

I have long contemplated—and failed to answer—the question of what makes a book great, even for my own mind. Why The Secret History? Especially why this book and not others? We’re mad when the hero dies or suffers some long-standing PTSD in science fiction and dystopian YA, but when literature shows a layer of darkness inherent in life, we call that insightful. Is it a matter of staying in one’s lane? A love story without a happily-ever-after can not be shelved romance because it breaks a pact more sacred than wedding vows. Expectation, is that the difference? If a novel is exactly what we are told it will be, it becomes popular? And is that the same thing as being good?

This wasn’t meant to be a comparison. It was meant to be a meandering commentary on why we love the books we do; why some books get press while others of similar quality, or better, do not. There really is no answer, not that I can give, but I will continue to ramble on about it.