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…