Why I Hated The Secret History by Donna Tartt

And why talking about it made me change my mind.

The Secret History review

Books are my bread and butter. They’re my meat and potatoes. They’re my dark creamy chocolate. Their smell makes my mind water with anticipation. Their covers make me curiouser than a cat. I love them, everything about them, and I almost never find a work of fiction that I adamantly dislike while reading it.

How is this possible? How can someone not dislike any books? Well, let me equivocate: sometimes I’ll realize that I didn’t really like a book later, after I finish it and think about it. This happened with all four Twilight books. I was swept up in them as a teenager and read them late into the night, literally staying up until dawn several times before going to sleep (apt for a vampire book, though not for the Twilight vampires, I suppose). Every time I finished one of the books, I would look around my dark bedroom (I inevitably seemed to finish them at 3 a.m.) and think, Why did I spend so long reading that? And then I would go snugly to sleep. Still, I clearly enjoyed the books while I was reading them; their redeeming features just all seemed to disappear when I closed them.

The point I’m trying to make is: I really, seriously, super rarely hate books.

But there was this one time.

This one time when I read a book that had been so highly recommended to me, and not just by every book recommendation engine and blog post known to reader-kind (more or less). It was also recommended by people who know my taste as well as those who don’t, seemingly by the world of book lovers itself, by some of my most literary and well-read friends, by my mother. This book seemed to be universally admired. So I picked it up, finally, and I read it.

It was Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and I hated it.

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I wanted to like it; hell, I wanted to love it. I usually agreed with my mother’s recommendations, and usually ended up adoring what my friends told me I just had to read. Maybe that’s where the problem really started: so many people told me to read the book that I went into it expecting something extraordinary, something that would blow me away so thoroughly that I’d have tears in my eyes just from reading the prose itself. The prose, actually, was the novel’s saving grace for me; it was almost everything else that I despised. These are strong words I’m using, but they’re honest. I felt cheated, angry, the promises of beauty and amazingness left unfulfilled. Disappointment can breed harsh emotions.

(Don’t worry, this story has a sort of happy ending.)

Why did I hate The Secret History so much? In order to understand that, I need to give a teensy tiny plot synopsis. In very broad strokes, this is how the novel is structured: The narrator, Richard, and his friends—twins Charles and Camilla, Francis, and Henry—kill friend #6, Bunny, at the outset of the novel, in the prologue, and it is from there that the novel winds back to when everything started for Richard, before he even knew these people. The novel’s second half, Book II, looks at what happens beyond Bunny’s death.

With some distance now, I know that part of why I disliked the book so much was because of its characters. This was my impression of them: entitled, snobby, privileged to the point of absolute ridiculousness, dramatic, flawed in really boring ways, predictable, and English. I have nothing against the English. It’s just that they weren’t actually English. Sure, the college they all attend is in New England, but NEW England isn’t ENGLAND, okay?! But all the characters wear sport-coats, seem to use phrases like “old boy” and appear to chuckle or glare a lot. They seemed like they themselves were trying to be the characters in Brideshead Revisited.

Actual scene: “Charles and I were drinking whiskey and soda. He had been trying to teach me to play piquet (“because it’s what Radon Crawley plays in Vanity Fair, but I was a slow learner and the cards lay abandoned.”)

All of them were just all so pretentious. They studied Latin and Greek with an eccentric professor who was even worse a snob than the group of friends; they hung around and lounged a lot; and they seemed to be sort of limp snobby fish. And Bunny—Bunny especially ticked me off. Or rather, Bunny’s relationship to the rest of the group. He’s introduced as pompous but congenial, and is slowly revealed to be more and more annoying. That is, his friends didn’t really like him, but they insist on spending time with him (until they decide to kill him for reasons I won’t go into because spoilers, but also, I hypothesized, just because he was so darn annoying). I was truly bemused as to why on earth these people, the ones that narrator Richard likes—Henry, Charles, Camilla, and Francis—would have chosen to be friends with Bunny to begin with, and I didn’t understand why they hadn’t gotten rid of him (in less drastic a way) earlier.

What this boils down to was that I found the book entirely unbelievable and hard to swallow because of the characters. While the prose was put together beautifully, I did feel that it gave the novel a certain slow quality that wasn’t to my liking, especially seeing as how impatient I was to get it over with. I wanted to be done with these characters I didn’t like, believe, have empathy for, or interest in.

So it was that with a sigh of relief I finished the book.

The next step was, of course, to go on a verbal rampage and accuse everyone who’d recommended the book to me of abusing my poor eyes and time and love of books and willingness to read almost anything. Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I did talk to my mother and friends about the book, asking them all: why on earth did you like this thing?!

And then they shattered all of my arguments against the book, one by one.

A friend of mine that I had long in-depth conversations about The Secret History with disagreed with me entirely about the pretension. Or rather, she agreed that the characters were pretentious, and then she told me that that was part of the point; she loved the characters precisely because of their deep insecurities, the things that led them to need to act in the ways they do. The fashion? Well, that was partly the time period the book was probably set in and that I had missed—fair enough. And not only that, but the way these characters dress and talk—well, they’re disguises. They’re masks. After all, she pointed out to me, the characters play out Dionysian rituals (Dionysus is the god of wine but also of theater, and hence, masks) and are obsessed with the philosophical notions of beauty. They’re essentially terrified young adults playing at being more sophisticated than they are.

Not only that but the language itself, which I found ponderous at times, is actually purposefully written in a neo-romanticist style which fits the characters’ desire to fill and surround themselves with aesthetic beauty.

My mother pointed out that the book explores friendship and what it means, that it gave the characters layers, and that the characters’ pasts made her continually need to reframe them. She also saw the characters’ dramas—yes, including the killing, though that is perhaps the most extreme example—as being incredibly powerful in that they are the kind that can really only take place during a certain time in a young person’s life, especially at institutions like universities and colleges.

Well, shoot. Now I had to start rethinking everything I’d thought before. And so I did. Some spoilers are below here, so fair warning.

Things are more complex than that little summary I gave up at the top. That was the summary of someone who didn’t like the book. The summary of someone who learned to love the book is as follows:

Richard, the narrator, is a desperately sad teenager. He hates where he comes from—a small town, parents who aren’t wealthy and are ambivalent about his education—and upon entering the studious Hampden College in Hampden, Vermont, he’s able to escape that past. A past that feels entirely too bland, too sad, and which he’s able to simply lie his way out of when set in a new environment, among new people.

The way the novel starts immediately tells you that it’s a Greek tragedy all its own, complete with the language of the epics: “Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature?” Richard asks the reader. “I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.”

Is it a wonder, then, that a young man with this disposition, a young man who is still young when telling his story, only twenty-eight and looking back at his late-teens self but with the wisdom and sadness and heavy-heartedness of one who’s experienced far more, who’s seen and lost too much—is it a wonder that this man finds the most romantic group of people he can attach himself to and goes about trying to integrate himself into their lives?

No, it isn’t a wonder. It’s sad—terribly sad—but it’s not surprising. After all, what Richard does is something we all do. We desperately want to belong. Perhaps that is a fatal flaw of humankind, this desire to belong. And that is what the characters in this book try to do so much—while also, conversely, doing what young people do all the time, seemingly everywhere, which is: try to rebel.

Henry, Charles, Camilla, Francis—they are all incredibly privileged, upper class, but all with screwed up families and histories that have given them all their own fatal flaws. For Henry, maybe it’s hubris; for Charles, drink; for Camilla, well, who knows? She’s a bit of a puzzle, one I’d like to go back and reread more carefully; for Francis, it is forbidden love—the love of men who don’t love him back.

Bunny…that hateful Bunny. Bunny is almost a caricature, but one you can kind of relate to. Or if you can’t relate to him, you can relate to his odd friendship to the rest of the characters. He too has a more upper class background than Richard, but he is also constantly broke (or incredibly cheap) and tries to live a lifestyle far beyond his means. He’s also the first to really welcome Richard into the exclusive Greek-studying club that Richard so wants to get into (he excelled in Greek in high school). How could Richard notharbor affection for him? Plus, and this is another thing I had to reconcile myself to, Bunnys exist. We all know someone who’s latched onto a group of friends and somehow managed to make themselves essential even though no one really likes them. Especially in high school and college, or in work environments, there’s always someone who doesn’t really get social cues, who’s a little strange and inappropriate, but who is ultimately harmless, and who you learn to sort of like along with, and maybe because of their quirks that really annoy you deep down. Bunny is really not some mad invention but a very realistic portrayal of a kind of person.

And finally, perhaps most importantly, the relationships and dramas between these characters. They’re exaggerated, over the top: the twins Charles and Camilla sleep together (or used to); Richard is in love with Camilla but she chooses Henry; Henry kills a man by accident while in the throes of an ancient ritual involving lots of alcohol and probably some illegal substances as well; Francis seems to be in lust with all his male friends except for Bunny, who all spurn his advances even though Richard goes rather far; Bunny starts to blackmail Henry which is part of why the group kills the annoying schmuck; and the consequences to all these actions make the group unravel. And all this in the course of one academic year.

These relationships are actually incredibly reflective of exactly those intense friendships of young adulthood, that in between time where you make stupid decisions with eyes wide open. The characters’ actions, their exclusions or inclusions of one another in various activities reflect the FOMO that newcomers to any group may experience. If you’ve ever been part of a group of friends you’ll recognize that anxiety that Richard has much of the time about being left out by his new group of friends. You’ll also recognize the very logical desire of the group of friends to keep their secrets safe, to not let the new guy in too quickly in case he either runs away in fear or goes and tattles on you to everyone. These characters are living an extension of high school in a way, their childish antics dressed in adult clothing, their intellect, and their drinking all making them look too sophisticated to criticize.

Are they self-aware? Sometimes, though often not. Again, just like many nineteen, twenty, and twenty-one year olds. Are they incredibly privileged? Yes, and that can be annoying, but then again, this is a novel of extravagance, of exaggeration dressed up as reality, just like the Greek tragedies (and comedies) are. It is a tale of belonging and not, and in that sense class and privilege play a big role in how we orient ourselves in the world. It’s a story of loneliness, ultimately, of feeling utterly bereft and confused and swept up in things without knowing where and why and how they’ve come to this.

In other words, when I started to think beyond my surface response to the plot and the characters of The Secret History, I realized just how incredible the book actually was, and how badly I’d misunderstood it. Yes, of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. None of us have to love every book we read. And yet, I find that with books that so many people love and find merit in, there often is merit. It just may not be where you’ve been looking. It might be folded into a crevice you didn’t notice, or locked in a drawer you didn’t realize you had the key to until someone gave it to you. The merit might be in the color rather than the shape, or in the brain rather than the heart.

I’ve found myself in this situation (never quite as dire as my utter turnabout with The Secret History) quite a few times now, usually with books I just didn’t get. That is, I could see the merit, but not why it meant so much; or I enjoyed the book on a surface level but didn’t really see the merit in it. And then, as in this case, all I needed to do was talk to others who’d read the book, who’d loved it, and listen to them explain what was worthy about it. Slowly, I began to unwrap the layers of my own misunderstanding or dislike until I could see where it stemmed from and what I needed to tweak inside of my conception of the book in order to change that.

Maybe you have no interest in being convinced that a book you disliked is good. That’s totally fine. But if for no other reason than curiosity, I recommend that if you’ve hated a book, found it boring, not understood why everyone makes such a fuss about it—go talk to someone who loves it, and ask them, quite simply, what they loved about it. Ask them whether they see your points. Maybe you’ll manage to convince someone that this or that book you disliked is really problematic and maybe you’ll teach someone something about how they read!

Or maybe, maybe they’ll teach you how to love something you didn’t know you wanted to love until you started to.

Image credit: Wolfgang Zwanzger/Shutterstock

ILANA MASAD is an Israeli-American writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, Printer's Row, The Toast, The Butter, The Rumpus, Hypertext Magazine, and more. She is the founder of TheOtherStories.org, a podcast for new, emerging, and struggling writers. She is (way too) active on Twitter @ilanaslightly.

About Ilana Masad

ILANA MASAD is a queer writer of fiction, nonfiction, and criticism. She is the founder and host of The Other Stories, an interview podcast featuring fiction writers, and is currently a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her debut novel, All My Mother’s Lovers, comes out May 2020.

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