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5 Reasons Why ‘The Secret History’ Disappointed Me

Don’t you just love those blog posts that list ‘7 things you have to do before you eat breakfast’ or ‘Top 10 Ways to Leave a Book in a Bathtub’ or ’76 Reasons Why It Would Have Paid You to Answer Our Ad A Few Months Ago’ (this last one is a genuine title)?

The_Secret_History,_front_coverDespite some bold claims that the lists posts are getting tiresome, most search engines and people browsing the internet still seem to love them. Personally, I think they are lazy, overrated… but a great way to summarise and be succinct. Particularly when you are talking about a book that most readers seem to love, but which I personally found rather disappointing. Perhaps it is also a sly response to John Mullan’s article, labelling the book a ‘modern classic’. I am talking, of course, about Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’.

1)      Main characters are pretentious twats – this comes through despite the main narrator Richard’s biased reporting. Now, I have nothing against campus novels and a bit of elitism myself: my set of friends in Cambridge were possibly viewed with an equal mix of envy and disdain. But I like to think that we had some redeeming features to offset our propensity to quote in foreign languages. Besides, we were quoting in foreign languages because we were in fact foreign, not because we were trying to be glamorous and different.

2)      Too long and repetitive. The book could have done with some serious editing: there was too much waffle, skirting around issues, which had nothing to do with obliqueness and everything to do with inability to get to the point. I found myself longing to skip passages or skim-read them. Yes, there are some passages of outstanding prose and self-deprecating humour. I just wish there had been more of these and less of the self-indulgent ones.

3)      It’s been done before – and much better. Need I mention ‘Brideshead Revisited’, ‘The Dead Poets’ Society’, ‘Crime and Punishment’ or ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’?

4)      No clear vision and story arc . The first part of the novel seemed to be building up towards something, and it certainly is clever to foreshadow the impeding tragedy. But then it just fell to pieces, as if it couldn’t quite decide where it was going. I refuse to believe this was a deliberate stylistic ploy. If it was, then it was a rather suicidal and over-long way of proving a point.

5)      The friendship and deep love of beauty did not sound quite believable. Again, perhaps this was deliberate, showing how these young people were deluding themselves into believing they were special or ‘chosen’, but I could not help feeling that they were shallow in their affections as well as their minds, and that they would not have supported each other in a meaningful way throughout this ordeal. If you compare with the original Greek myths (to whom this book is supposedly so deeply indebted): there is real tragedy, real depth, tough choices, blind fate in there. While in this case, the protagonists have brought their problem upon themselves and the tragedy feels skin-deep. Except for the poor farmer – whatever happened to his family?

Maybe if I’d read it back in 1992, when I was a student, I would have been more kindly disposed towards it? But I think not. Cult books have never quite rocked my boat. Maybe I have never wanted to be part of a cult that will have me…

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23 thoughts on “5 Reasons Why ‘The Secret History’ Disappointed Me

  1. Marina Sofia – What a clever, thoughtful and candid critique of this book. My feeling has always been that everyone’s tastes are different, so just because a book gets rave reviews doesn’t mean one personally has to like it. And you’ve given solid reasons for which this one disappointed you. I also like the way you get at the depth and character development needed to move a story along. Well done

    • Well, you know me: I speak my mind. I was really prepared to like this one, because it sounded like my kind of novel, so perhaps it was also because my expectations were just too high!

  2. Ha! I did read it in 1992 and so I really liked it BUT I know what you mean . You’re right, it has been done before ……and was called The Magus by John Fowles !!!!

  3. I also read it way back when it came out and loved it…at the time. However your comments on it could easily translate to everything I disliked about The Goldfinch, and since I read it I’ve wondered if I would still love The Secret History. I suspect not…

    • Oh, dear, so maybe I won’t enjoy The Goldfinch much then. I was thinking of braving it. I always give authors a second chance, don’t judge them on the basis of just one book.

  4. Fabulous review! Do you know, it’s interesting that you mention reading it a little younger. I did read it in college and I remember devouring it. So much so that I bought myself a copy a few years later to replace the loan copy that I’d had to return to a friend. I remember vividly sitting down to read it again… and I never got beyond the third chapter. I just couldn’t do it. I put it down to having grown a little, my world views having changed, and just generally being ‘beyond’ that point. But I too was disappointed that a book I had once enjoyed so much failed to captivate me a few years later. I thought maybe it was just me. Or maybe it wasn’t? Great thoughts, Marina, thanks!

    • Yes, I sometimes dread rereading books that I once loved, for fear they won’t live up to my memory of them. Some have stood up to the test of time (age?) but others…

  5. I totally agree with your thoughts about this book – I read it on someone’s recommendation when I was in my thirties, and I tried really hard to think it was as great as it was supposed to be, but there was a little bit of me going: Really??? Many of the books I’ve read for my Masters have been supposed classics, or works of ‘great importance’, but many of them have fallen short by the very standards we are also taught to judge a book by – the very standards you’ve applied to TSH. And I agree with Nicky about the pain of re-reading a book we’ve enjoyed in the past. Sometimes it can be fantastic, but more often leads to a really sad disappointment. Great post, as always :)

    • Do tell us which books on your Masters course disappointed: don’t be shy…
      I think the converse also holds true: that we are forced to read books in high school which we would be much better off reading later on in life, when we can understand and appreciate them more (Durrenmatt’s The Visit, Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities).

  6. I have loved this book long and hard, probably in part because I read it in 1992 when college was not ten years from me. Even so, I understand what you’re saying. I guess it just struck a chord with me, all those Mont Blanc Meisterstuck pens in the upstairs classroom, all that elite group and pride…somehow, I loved it, the mood and their demise.

    • Funnily enough, I covet a Mont Blanc pen with all my heart (a writer’s special edition one, moreover – I’ve told myself I’ll get one when I sign a publishing contract and not a day before). But I’ve heard a lot of people say that they loved the book because they felt they were being let into a secret (thus duplicating Richard’s desire to be part of the elite group). I think it just came out too late for me: if it had come out before 1989, when I was in my teens, I can see how I might have been attracted to it. But after taking part in a revolution in 1989 and feeling a real sense of fellowship and desire to change the world, the concerns and secrets of this group of people just felt so … small.

  7. Now that I have read this, I am glad I have The Little Friend and not The Secret History. Don’t know when I will read The Little Friend because of the length and so many other books ahead of it. I read the Guardian article and the only point there that seemed enticing is the quotations. Your list is interesting.

  8. Interesting pov. I actually just finished this book last week and I loved it. I agree somewhat with #1, however. I think Donna’s use of language is so musical and her phrasing quite unique and that is a lot of what I loved about this book. Yes, the subject has been done before but that can be said of any subject. Maybe because I’m a stranger to this world is another reason why I found it so fascinating. Anyway, I loved it so much that I’m now reading The Little Friend and loving it too!
    I enjoyed your critique, MarinaSofia.

    • We all have different reactions to reading and that’s what makes life (and book reviews/book clubs) so interesting! Thanks for coming over to visit and for sharing.

  9. Where were you 20 odd years ago when my similar criticisms of this book got me asked politely to leave the book club which discussed it? It would have been nice to have at least one other person share my thoughts – or be prepared to at least contemplate it’s not the best book ever written. I read it the year it was released which means I’d only been out of University for about 5 years – but I’d still rather have read Waugh :)

  10. Really – a book club that eliminated dissidents and other points of view? Sounds like a Communist one to me… I did read Waugh at the time and had a teddy-bear for whom I knitted little outfits and who went everywhere with me, so I may have been a ripe victim for the book then. But in Brideshead Revisited the characters were rather charming.

    • It really was a very snobbish book club and I think my disagreement over TSH was just the last straw – I also lived in the wrong part of town and had the wrong sort of job (I joined because I had just moved to a new city and knew precisely 1 person – I figured a book club which advertised at a library was just what I needed but alas even among book-ish types there are rotten people).

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  12. I too am in the loved-it-when-it-came-out camp, and I reread it less than a year ago for book club and was underwhelmed. I think the first half was very good, and that’s what I remembered. It did make for a great discussion, and one of my friends mentioned that she ran into rapturous younger fans of the book when she picked up her copy at the bookstore. Tartt still appeals to 20-year-olds!

    • There certainly are some books that you just need to read at the right age. But yes, I can imagine it’s the kind of book that would lead to a very lively discussion at a book club. Unless your book club tends to be in admirative agreement about the book (see above).

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