The Secret History

By Donna Tartt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Secret History

I will admit to not knowing if I liked this book or not when I first started. It starts a bit slow, even with a major teaser in the very beginning. I did genuinely want to learn what happened so I kept reading. At some point, it switched from not knowing if I was enjoying it to deciding how much I was enjoying it.
The draw to this book is really the subtle tension. The pacing for the most part remains a bit slow, but that’s entirely because of the fact that the story follows the main character, Richard, who is a part of the elite and eccentric social group in his college while simultaneously remaining very outside of it. It was a little unnerving watching terrible events unfold with little bits of information coming in to paint a whole picture. It was also nice reading a character I both liked and disliked in a good way.

Full Review with Spoilers

I went into this book with high expectations. A sapphic retelling of a classic fairytale is something I will always jump on. I was extremely happy to see that this book delivered and then some. The entire story is told from the perspective of Alyce, the traditional villain of Sleeping Beauty. The books acts as much like an origin story as much as it is a retelling.

Alyce is a fantastic character. She is told she is essentially evil and dark her whole life, that she is something other. It was heartbreaking to see how she deals with this her whole life and as much as she tries not to be that person, it definitely shaped who she is. She does what is essentially considered bad things because it is what is expected of her and what she is brought up to believe is the only thing she can do. Aurora is also a great main character. She is a princess and at first glance Alyce’s total opposite. The relationship that builds between them through the book is so well done. It was great to see them connect over their general dislike of everyone around them then it progress to Alyce trying to help her break the curse that will kill her when she turns 21. I loved seeing Alyce’s emotion progress and escalate even if she could quite see it for what it is.

There was a very interesting magic, social structure, and history developed in this book. I especially loved how the decline in ruling from a Queendom to a Kingdom where the queens have essentially given all their power to her husband over time really hinted at the same type of direction the story was going to take. The author did a great job placing these hints and connecting everything in a smooth flow that never felt like an information overload to the reader.

The storyline flowed so very well. There was a fantastic mix of emotional drama, angst and the sweeter buildup on the romance side. The romance was definitely not the focus of the story, though it was very much there. It really focus on Alyce’s build up to becoming a villain. And it was such a ride! Once Alyce crosses that line into actually killing people I have no idea what I should feel. Up to that point we get to see everything that has just been stacking against her and in a way we really see the justification for her actions. I ended the book completely blown away by the turn of events. We see Alyce exactly how we expect, guarding a sleeping princess against a kingdom that hates her.

Overall

This was a great retelling that gives the reader a new way of looking at a classic and very well known fairytale. Good story telling and great character development make this an extremely enjoyable read and one you won’t want to put down.

I was genuinely not sure how I felt about this book for the first 1/4 of reading it, even with the opening of the book discussing the death of a major character. The story follows Richard, a young man with little to his name but the desire to be more. He was actually a pretty relatable character. I enjoyed watching him do whatever was in his power to be a part of this elite group of Latin students at the college he transfers to. I could see the appeal. They were eccentric, mysterious and from an outside perspective they appeared to be privileged. Again, that desire was relatable.

Throughout the book Richard starts to see how dark this group truly is, unofficially lead by another young man named Henry. Secrets, murder and blackmail abound! All the while, Richard is mostly oblivious to all of this until they start spreading into his life, despite the groups efforts to keep him on the outside. I loved seeing each character in turn essentially confide in him separately everything that is going on and it is because of the fact that he has the least involvement in all their shady dealings. While Richard is struggling with this aspect of his life though, the author peppers in interactions with other students at the school that have no involvement with the Latin class. It’s a really great method of making us as the readers so very frustrated at Richard. Several interesting and extremely likable characters are introduced that would have made for a much better college experience for Richard. Richard however, cannot distance himself from the drama. It’s terribly frustrating in a way I’m sure the author had intended. Tensions remained high through most of the book because of all of the secrets that everyone seemed to have. Because these secrets were being kept from Richard, they were being kept from us.

Overall

I ended up really liking this book despite, and a little bit because of, the fact that it sort of feels like nothing really happens until the major plot points which mostly revolves around a death and murder. I can’t say I would recommend this book to everyone, but I personally am very happy to have read it.

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