A Million Thoughts on The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  • Reviews

Release Date: September 1992

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.

Donna Tartt, The Secret History

If you’re looking for a book to read, pick The Secret History – it made my favourites list. This book had everything I love: humour, murder, complex and developed characters that I was obsessed with, an amazingly well thought-out plot, good dialogue, rich students with loose morals, great side characters, and, to top it all off, mythology.

Here are all my thoughts on this book!

Warning: this is not a spoiler-free review!

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Relatable Richard

Before things take a murderous turn in this novel, I actually liked Richard. He was quite a relatable character who drew a lot of sympathy from me. He talked about how he hates Sundays (I do too), how he reads, and how he never really feels at home with his family. I was especially sad the times when he called his father and hung up before he got a chance to speak, already hearing the irritability in his voice. He is the perfect character for this book, because he is clearly searching for a place in the world, a place he finds with Henry, Camilla, Charles, Francis, and Bunny, no matter the cost.

Cult?!

Richard’s character mixed with the type of people the others are really reminded me of a cult-like structure. Richard is seeking meaning and to be needed, and he finds this in the tight-knit group of Henry, Camilla, Charles, Francis, and Bunny, despite that they have such loose morals and do quite terrible deeds. He is able to overlook murder, incest, and more, all to feel like he has a place. He even betrays Bunny, and it seems very much like he’s almost seeking Bunny’s place.

This group is very toxic, and it takes no time before they get over Bunny and start turning on each other. Henry tries to place the blame on Richard, Francis begins to distrust Charles, Charles begins to hate Henry, and the two both attempt to kill each other at one point as well, and of course, it all begins with the group turning on Bunny. Everyone is on fairly good terms with Richard, but in a way that shows just how much he doesn’t fit in with them.

Favours Favours Favours

This brings me to the topic of favours, which is extremely present in this novel. The group all take advantage of each other, though they really only pay attention to Bunny doing that, and they constantly ask each other to do things they don’t necessarily want to do. However, they mostly take advantage of Richard. Every other sentence of the book is “Richard drive me here”, “Richard take me to the doctors”, “Richard I forgot my wallet”, “Richard I need to go to the hospital right now at 3 in the morning”, “Richard find Henry some medicine”, “Richard run down to the police station.” It takes Richard having a revelation about this very late in the novel for things to really begin to change. However, they do make a perfect group of murderers because they effortlessly read each other’s minds and know exactly what needs to be done.

Francis, Henry, Camilla & Charles

Henry: For some reason, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by Henry. He is terrifying and the only one who is completely unaffected by murder – he actually finds it to be a positive experience. He’s definitely a bit hard to read, but that makes him all the more interesting. He is the smartest of the bunch, and yet he is the one who everyone believes will mess up the police interrogation. He seems to want to place blame on others, but is the one to take the final fall through death at the end. Interesting.

Francis: I didn’t like Francis for most of the book, but later I became more fond of him. He is a hypochondriac, and is constantly worried about everything, which is interesting considering that he has no problem taking part in a murder. It seems like he agrees to this because he really has no relationship with Bunny, and they are almost never alone together.

Camilla: Okay I definitely liked Camilla at first, because I genuinely thought something might happen between her and Richard, since she sort of acted like that was a possibility. I liked that she was the only girl in the group, and was unbothered by Bunny’s sexist comments towards her. However, she does lead people on, and it’s quite annoying. Richard is pretty annoying to her too though, since he never leaves her alone. She’s difficult to read too.

Charles: Charles definitely has some personal issues. At first, he seems the most friendly, and he treats Richard really kindly. However, of course I couldn’t like him after I discovered what was going on between him and Camilla. About Charles and Camilla…this was the most unconformable and warped situation ever. It definitely became obvious at a certain point, but it’s even more strange that Charles seems to see nothing wrong with it.

Henry & Camilla

Henry and Camilla, on the other hand, I can get on board with. This relationship wasn’t revealed until quite late in the book, but the moment it became clear to me was when Henry was lighting Camilla’s cigarette and she had “one hand cupped around the flame and the other resting upon his wrist.” Since Henry seemed to be so void of emotions, it was nice to see him feel something for Camilla, and I thought they definitely worked really well together.

Bunny, Bunny, Bunny (Must be funny…In the rich man’s world)

Let me start by saying that I by no means liked Bunny. He is rude, selfish, annoying, and quite an exploiter, and the comments he makes are extremely inexcusable. However, it seems that Bunny’s murder takes place for the reason that everyone is annoyed with him and how much money he takes from them, which doesn’t exactly make him deserving of murder. Bunny is the only one who doesn’t want to take part in the strange Dionysius ritual, and the only one who is extremely disturbed by the fact that Henry, Charles, Camilla, and Francis killed a man. He is also the only one who is disturbed by the incestuous relationship between Charles and Camilla, even Richard seems to overlook this.

Bunny is quite a dreadful person to be around, but some of his methods of annoying the others are really hilarious. Charles, who is an alcoholic, gets left pamphlets that say “Do you sometimes feel you need a drink to get through the day?”, which was kind of funny in the midst of a very tense situation. He is also the only character who does quite poorly in school, which Donna Tartt also uses as a funny component of the novel. One thing I loved was when Bunny was tasked with doing a project on John Donne. He ends up writing about several other people instead, and Charles suggest he actually mention John Donne in the project. Bunny responds by saying “Oh Donne…I don’t want to drag him into this”, which is such a funny Bunny thing to say. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like Bunny necessarily, but he is pretty funny sometimes (when he’s not being homophobic or taking advantage of his friends).

He is very different from the rest of his friends, again with the fact that the murder deeply consumes and bothers him, even though he had no part in it, and he is also very naive when it comes to the way he views his friends. That being said, I found his death to be quite sad, especially when Richard says “He hadn’t seen it coming at all. He hadn’t even understood, there wasn’t time.” I felt quite bad for him because his friends harshly turned on him, so even though he wasn’t a great person, it was still a sad scene to read.

Is Richard Okay?

Richard is so invested in being accepted by the group that he seems completely in denial of what he’s taken part in (Bunny’s murder). He says that for much of the time, he sees it as nothing more than “a game.” He feels sick ever since Bunny dies, but he doesn’t quite grasp that it’s because he has killed Bunny. He is in complete denial of what he’s done, and it only sinks in that Bunny is permanently gone when he sees Bunny is his coffin.

Judy!

Judy is a good one. Richard is kind of mean to her because she’s annoying, but she has her good moments. If he gave her the proper chance, she’d be an actual good friend, not like Henry and the others. She helps him when he needs it, and even loans him her car without batting an eye. She really grew on me.

Julian?

Going into this book I had high expectations for Julian. The very synopsis of the book says “Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfit…” and yet he’s barely a character. He is important, but the story seems more focused on the six students and what they do on their own time, without their professor Julian. I had anticipated that Julian might have known something beforehand about Bunny’s murder – that Henry must have spoken to him about it – and yet he had no role in that either; once he found out, he just left. The professor was a crucial part in Henry’s story for sure, and one of the only pointers that Henry had feelings, and ultimately the reason why he ended his life.

Final Thoughts

This is by far one of my most favourite books I’ve read, and I’d recommend it to almost anyone. I mention it in my TikTok as one of my favourite stand-alone novels as well, so be sure to check that out too!

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