With this book staring me in the face for months now, I finally picked up Donna Tartt's famed hit, The Secret History. I'd read several dark academia novels, from Ninth House to If We Were Villains, and while the subgenre was hit or miss for me, I have to admit, this novel was hard to put down.
It's challenging to describe what makes The Secret History so revered 30 years after its publication. Tartt evokes key environments that scream dark academia, from a secluded liberal arts college to a hidden New England cabin, but her characters are anything but cozy or charming. It's a fact that's integral to the reading experience: The Secret History is filled to the brim with some of the most irreedemable, pretentious, and out-of-touch characters I've read in a long time. I was personally fascinated how these awful people could descend into even more deplorable depths, but that was what kept me reading every chapter—seeing the actions of characters whose moral compasses pointed due south. Every single character in Julian Morrow's handselected crew is outrageously awful, but it was fascinating to see just how absurd and awful the story became.
I did enjoy Tartt's storytelling and character study, but there were some things that strained belief. For instance, one of the characters is disdainful of recessed lighting (who isn't?) but decides to solve the problem with—of course—a kerosene lamp. In the year 1992. Racism and homophobia are also rampant in the novel, leaving me to feel a little less than sympathetic whenever something bad happens to any of the main characters. I can understand that might be part of Tartt's overall point, but to me, there was no "descent" into madness and evil, as the back of the novel promises. It is a beautifully written tale of the worst people you've ever heard of doing awful things in the name of "beauty" and "knowledge," like the very worst hipsters you could ever imagine.
That's my ultimate gripe with The Secret History, but one of the reasons I think the novel persists to be relevant. Are we too navel-gazing and in love with the idea of "dark academia" to realize these characters are nothing but frauds? Or is this novel a vicious rebuke of everything dark academia claims to be, and shows us the truth behind the ideals?
Let me know your ideas, because I'm still of two minds about this book.
And if you haven't visited this unique New England college in literary form, come by the store and pick up your copy! I'm always up for a discussion of any and all books I've come across.