Bestseller Breakdown: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

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Phew…I’m enjoying the Bestseller Breakdown feature so much that I practically inhaled The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s first novel.  As you’ll see, I found differences and similarities between this novel and The Goldfinch, her latest novel, which I covered in my first Bestseller Breakdown post here.

What people are saying:

Critical Reception:  Before publication in 1992, the book received a huge amount of hype, and Tartt was offered a $450,000 advance.  The book was widely well-reviewed when it was first published.  The New York Times called it ‘ferociously well-paced entertainment’ which ‘succeeds magnificently’.  Publisher’s Weekly said it was ‘a mysterious, richly detailed story told by a talented writer’, though it criticised ‘the plot’s many inconsistencies, the self-indulgent, high-flown references to classic literature and the reliance on melodrama’.

Even today, the book continues to be reviewed and discussed in the media, and is now thought of as a ‘cult’ or ‘modern’ classic.  Last October, The Guardian published its Ten Reasons We Love Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and The Independent reviewed it as a Book of a Lifetime in 2008.

Reader Response: The book has amassed a huge cult following, with websites such as Donna Tartt Shrine set up in the late 1990s.  There are so many reviews on Goodreads (70,455) that the ratings functions seems too overwhelmed to give the figures breakdown(!), but I think that considering the book was published long before Goodreads was around (1992), the fact it has so many reviews is a testament to it in itself.

Taking the total number of reviews from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk, the percentage of 4 and 5 star reviews was 76%, 1% less than The Goldfinch.  Those who gave one star reviews mainly claimed that they thought the book was overrated, pretentious, and that the characters were unrelatable.

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Aspects of the novel:

Plot or character driven? : Plot driven – interesting twist on the murder mystery genre (see below).  We keep reading to find out Why rather than Who.

Setting: A liberal arts college in Vermont/ A country house nearby

Structure: The structure of The Secret History is similar to The Goldfinch – a single narrator retelling a portion of his past – but much more simplistic as it focuses on one short period of the protagonist’s life (the time leading up to and after the murder), rather than his whole life.  It is based in one setting rather than many, and the narrative progresses chronologically.

Characters

I first read The Secret History when I was in my final year of school.  I was about to go to university, and it made me heartily excited about the possibility of meeting such strange, eccentric characters as the ones in the book.  And on re-reading, this was the thing that struck me the most too.  The six main characters are well-drawn and interesting enough that we keep reading in order to find out more about them, and about the horrendous act they have committed.

Comparisons to The Goldfinch

I think that Theo’s character in The Goldfinch, though similar to Richard (the protagonist of The Secret History) in, is more compelling.  The Goldfinch is more of a character study, delving further into Theo’s past, whereas The Secret History is all about the murder and its implications.

We are also held at arm’s length from Richard and the other characters.   Richard, as an outsider, only has access to certain information about the other members of the Greek group, and as a result, we are distanced too.  I think maybe the characters of The Secret History are also less accessible to us because they are more guarded, more interested in appearances, and hence it is an aspect of their characters to be somewhat false.  I think this distancing is a strength of The Secret History as it allows us, like Richard, to be on the outside of some aspects of what is going on, which increases intrigue and encourages us to keep reading.

Why do we keep reading?

Despite Tartt disclosing the main mystery of the novel on the first page – that there has been a murder, which the protagonist was involved in – it is still a page-turner.  We are often told as novice writers to withhold key information to keep the reader guessing.  Tartt, however, disregards this, instead following the advice of Kurt Vonnegut, who in his 8 Tips on How To Write A Great Story, suggests the following:

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

So why do we keep reading The Secret History if we know what happened on the first page?  Because this is not your average murder mystery.  Usually, the reader wants to know who committed the murder, whereas in this case, the answer we are seeking is why.  We are presented with a weirdly close group of college friends, who have exactly the kind of fraternity and like-mindedness we might wish for in our university friends.  We know straight off that one member of the group, Bunny, was killed by the others.  What we want to know is why?  What led these friends to kill one of their accepted circle?

But Tartt doesn’t only answer that question.  Of course, we find out about the build-up to the murder and the motive.  But she also leads the reader on with another question: did they get away with it?  We know that Richard is writing from sometime after the events of the narrative, but we don’t know whether they were apprehended for what they did.  And Tartt answers that by giving us the obvious answer, but also raises the question of whether living with what they had done led to worse consequences.

Atmosphere

The description of setting and place in the novel is strong: we have a clear picture of the college, the house in the country, and the office where they take their classes.  Tartt does something in The Secret History however which I think she doesn’t lean on so heavily in The Goldfinch: she uses the setting to create tension and suspense.

A thick fog lay in the valley below, a smoldering cauldron of white from which only the treetops protruded, stark and Dantesque.

Open the book on any page, and you will find a description which serves the dual purpose of setting the scene, and creating a sense of foreboding.  This, I think, is to do with the different genre of this novel: as a mystery, the suspense propels us on to discover what happened

Why Is The Secret History a bestseller?

i) The premise is great: 5 slightly odd students kill their friend.  Of course, we want to know why.  It’s a clever twist on the murder mystery, one which demands more of the reader and gives a larger pay out, allowing Tartt to make claims about the nature of evil, and the consequences of unsavoury acts.

ii) It makes the reader complicit in the story.  As Richard tells us what happened leading up to Bunny’s murder, we are drawn in almost as a member of the group, but simultaneously held at a distance just large enough for us to keep wanting more.  As John Mullan writes in The Guardian’s Ten Reasons We Love Donna Tartt’s The Secret History:

Every one of the millions who have read The Secret History has the delicious illusion of being admitted to the most dangerous of confidences. It is as if her every reader is the first and only one to read it.

iii) Tartt gives the reader credit.  I think this is the power of all her novels.  Reading Donna Tartt makes you feel smart.  It makes you feel involved in story, and in the painstaking worlds she creates.  She doesn’t molly-coddle the reader.

I’ve already started reading Tartt’s middle novel, The Little Friend, and it already feels like a very different book.  I can’t wait to blog about it next.

 Do you agree about The Secret History?  Do you think it’s overrated?  Did you prefer it to The Goldfinch?

Want more?  Read my Bestseller Breakdown of The Goldfinch, Tartt’s latest novel.

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