The Secret History – Donna Tartt

November 8, 2012 Bookclub, Reading Nook, Review 24

Title: The Secret History
Author: Donna Tartt
Narrator: Donna Tartt
Published: 1992  Pages: 559
Audio Duration: 22 hours; 8 min
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 3/5

In Short: (I cheat and use Amazon) “A group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and forever, and they discover how hard it can be to truly live and how easy it is to kill.”
Why I Read It: The Secret History was selected as the October book club pick at A Real Bookstore. We basically throw out titles and mutually agree. Incidentally, The Secret History is one of the top sellers at this bookstore.
Thoughts in General: There are a lot of things to like about The Secret History. It has a deliciously moody atmosphere and attention to academia that are both perfect for the autumn season and the writing is rich without being heavy. The characters are well-drawn but also provide just the right amount of mystique to keep the reader curious and attentive. Even though Bunny’s death is made apparent in the first pages, the novel’s plot unravels until the end of the novel.
All of these things are elements that I crave when I’m reading and at the beginning of this book I felt all of the promise. Until I turned on the audio. As soon as I started listening to the book I realized how terrible and unforgiving the characters are. They were shallow and despicable and had no redeeming qualities. And the book plodded on and on and on. But when I was reading I fell into the writing and was able to forgive all of these shortcomings. More and more, however, I felt annoyed with the characters and the book was beyond being saved in my good opinion.
Bottom Line: The Secret History is certainly a compelling story but it could have benefited from one hundred less pages and a big giant reality check for the characters who lived in lala-land. In the end it just wasn’t believable (was it supposed to be?) and while I did enjoy many aspects of the book (mostly the mood and mystique), looking back I can only seem to see the negatives (the deplorable characters and their actions). In book club we barely discussed the book at all—some couldn’t even finish it. But…lots of people really love this book. In a few words? Ennui over the top.
However, I do think The Secret History would make a great movie. I totally picture Michael Gladis from Mad Men as Henry.
A Note on the Audio: When I realized I wasn’t going to make it through the book before book club, I downloaded the audiobook from audible. The Secret History is narrated by the author, Donna Tartt, and I strongly urge you not to listen to the audiobook if you plan on experiencing this book. Put very plainly, Tartt’s southern accent is all wrong for these characters—most of whom are northerners—and her tone inflection makes the characters sound scornful and callous. The narration greatly affected my reading of the novel.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this one if you’ve read it!

If you haven’t read The Secret History, is there a book that you’ve listened to on audio that ruined the book for you?

24 Responses to “The Secret History – Donna Tartt”

  1. Vicki

    The voice of a narrator can make or break a book very quickly. I started listening to Love In A Nutshell by Janet Evanovich. It was narrated by Lorelei King, and I had to stop listening before the end of the first chapter because her voice got on my nerves when she was doing the male role.

  2. Joanna

    I read this a looooong time ago and remember loving it and recommending to people for a long time. Honestly, I can’t remember the details though. And also I might be confusing it with The Magus. Hmmm, maybe time for a re-read of both! The Magus read-a-long? :-)

  3. Peppermint Ph.D.

    I haven’t read this one either but have heard a lot about it. I don’t listen to as much as audio as you do, but I totally agree that the narrator can make or break even the very best of books. I don’t DNF much, but I have 2 DNFs right now that are both audiobooks…both read by the authors :(

  4. Paxton

    This book has been on my radar for a while, but I’ve heard the same concerns as you, Trish. Deplorable, irredeemable characters. I just don’t think I have the patience to put up with them for the entire book.

    Besides, I’m belly button deep into Stephen King’s 11/22/63 and it is AWESOME.

    Pax

  5. Trish

    *Vicki – I agree a bad narration can really affect the book! I really wish that I hadn’t listened to the audio for this one because I think I would have felt differently, but I was so pressed for time. :( Sorry Love in a Nutshell audio didn’t work for you!

    *Joanna – I’m not familiar with The Magus! Will have to look it up. I was really interested in this one until they killed the man and were so unremorseful about the whole thing. Just couldn’t relate anymore. And I think that’s part of the point but I found myself detaching from the book. I know several book bloggers who really loved it, though!

    *Peppermint Ph.D – I have listened to a few books narrated by authors and they’ve been fantastic, but they’ve also been nonfiction (Tina Fey, David Sedaris to name a few). But generally I wish that authors would stay away from reading! People really love this one so don’t write it off…just make sure you read it.

    *Diane – I honestly think it was the bad audio production. I REALLY WANT to love this one like everyone else! I do! ;) Glad you liked it better!

  6. Meg @ write meg!

    Hmm. I’ve been mildly interested in this one in the past, but now I’m not so sure! It greatly disturbs me when authors read their own work . . . and are pretty bad at it. Case in point: Jane Green reading her book (that I hated) Another Piece of My Heart. The novel was full of American characters and set in California — and Green, a British author, was just all wrong. So wrong. I probably would have disliked the book without her narration, but the audio just all-around ruined it for me. One of the worst things I’ve read this year!

  7. Melissa (Avid Reader)

    I just started this one yesterday because it made it on Book Riot’s top 50 favorite books. I’m only in the second chapter or something, but I’m glad you mentioned the audio was bad. I tend to hate it when authors read their own books. There are only a few that can pull it off (Neil Gaiman!), the rest just sound wrong.

  8. Charlie

    This was a really good review :) The concept sounds really good, and you’ve made me interested to find out what this way of living is. It makes sense, I suppose, that the characters would be unlikeable, and that can be okay, but it doesn’t sound as though there is enough change later on.

  9. Sara

    I was ambivalent about this one – my reading journal (pre-blog) at the time reads, “Not at all a terrible read but not at the top of any lists, either.” On the issue of authors reading their own books, I think Mary Pope Osborne does a good job with her Magic Treehouse Series. Am I crazy?

  10. Kristen M.

    I’ll tell you where this one finally totally lost me … the sleeping in an attic with a hole in the roof during winter part. When I realized that he was so stupid that he wouldn’t even try and find a way to be warm, I just thought what an idiot he (and everyone else in the book) was. Yes I read the whole book and I didn’t hate the book itself … I just hated all of the characters. :)

  11. Trish

    *Meg – Like I’ve said to some of the others, many people really love this book so I wouldn’t write it off. Just don’t listen to the audio! ;) And about the narration you listened to this year–why why why do authors feel that narrating their book is a good idea?! Sorry it was a dud for you too.

    *Melissa – I will be very curious what you think of this one! I WANT to love it like everyone else–I really really do. ;)

    *Charlie – The book is a fascinating one and the writing was overall very rich (although at some places it was clunky). I did feel like the “way of living” was a bit of a stretch and made the book rather unbelievable. But… Give it a shot–many bloggers really love this one!

    *Sara – LOL!! No–you’re not crazy (well, I don’t know since I’ve never listened to Treehouse). I have heard some authors read their work and it’s fantastic. This…not so much. I’m assuming it was low budget. Honestly I think it would be better to have no audio production than a bad one?

    *Lisa – If it had just been the audio I would have DNF. It really made me hate the characters. Wish I could just unhear it. ;)

    *Kristen – Ugh!!! I know! They were all just so ridiculous. A girl on twitter told me the other day that she loved this book because the people reminded her of the best times as a English major. Um?? ;) I didn’t hate the book either–just the narration.

  12. Marie Monaghan

    I loved this book, it’s definitely up there with my all-time favourites! It’s just so dark, I loved to hate everyone in it. It’s a shame the audiobook isn’t up to much. I don’t listen to audiobooks myself but I imagine it must be hard for the narrator to get the tone just right.

  13. Laura

    God, everyone in this book really was awful, weren’t they? Apart from the main dude, whose name I can’t remember, which is sad because I did REALLY like this book at the time. Clearly needs a re-read! But um, yeah, maybe not for you hehe.

    I don’t know if you’d want to try more Tartt, but I also really liked The Little Stranger, and I also can’t remember what happens in it much… Damn pre-blogging reading! But anyway, I recommends it. If you feel like more Tartt. Ever.

  14. C.B. James

    As a rule, I suggest avoiding author narrated audio. Author’s are not actors, and generally make for very dry readers in my experience. There are a few exceptions but even David Sedaris is not as entertaining as he used to be.

    As for this book, I hated it so much that the only reason I finished it was because I thought some of the characters might end up dying painful deaths and I certainly didn’t want to miss that. I know this is a spoiler, but I don’t care. The only thing that would have made this book better is if more of the characters had died in the end.

    As far as I’m concerned, I can’t spoil this book because it is so bad, it’s already spoiled.

    It’s awful. Don’t read it. Unless the author write a new ending wherein everyone dies. Then it might be worth reading.

  15. Care

    I go back and forth on thinking I will read this. I probably won’t but I can certainly say I will not LISTEN to it. THanks.

  16. Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick

    This easily makes my favorites list for 2012, so I also can’t imagine why the heck Donna Tartt would even want to be the reader for the audio version! Reading this book made the weather change to cooler climes much more enjoyable, and I’m so sorry you had to listen to this one instead! Wait a few years, pick the book back up again and experience it only through reading it. Or, who knows, maybe they will redo the audio with a proper narrator!

    Either way, though, the characters are really just deplorable people. Ugh. Still loved the book, though! :)

  17. Jenny Girl

    This one is a no for me. Plodding on, living in la-la land, I can’t stand real people who are like that, so I don’t want to read about them. Thanks for the honesty.

  18. Les

    Wow. It looks like this is one of those books that readers either loved or hated. I tried (and gave-up on) The Little Friend and I have this in my stacks (it’s been there forever!), but now I’m not sure whether to give it a try or add it to my Half-Price Books discard pile.

  19. stacybuckeye

    I feel like I’ve already left a comment about this, but maybe it was on another post. I remember listening to the audio years ago, when it first came out and not understanding what all the fuss was about. Now I’m thinking it may have been the author reading the book. A southern accent would not work for these characters.

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