The love of re-reading: The Secret History
Updated: Nov 6, 2022
I've read The Secret History three times in print I believe, and listened to it once. Returning to a book multiple times can give you a different understanding of the work. I can't understand why some people don't like to re-read. If I loved the book, I want to go back.
There's about 800 spoilers coming up, so if you haven't read it, abandon ship now.
I flew through the first reading, dying to find out what would happen, and so taken with the life that this group of friends was living. When I was in college, I lived with my parents and commuted to the campus. I worked at the library between classes and went straight home afterwards, so I wouldn't have to walk around campus after dark. It wasn't all bad, but the idea of having friends who lived off-campus, being in and out of each others' apartments, going off to a house in the country on the weekends- it's all very fascinating to me.
The second reading was very like the first; this book has so much going on, that when I came back to it, I found that there were characters and events that I'd barely noticed in my hurry. I read it a third time to see if it was as good as I remembered. (It was.) And this last reading (I count listening to audiobooks as reading) was just because I was scrolling through available audiobooks on a library service that I use, and there was one of my favorite books, read by the author! I have to admit, I was curious to see how Donna Tartt, a Southerner, would sound reading all those Yankee accents. Pretty good, as it turned out.
In this last reading, there were no surprises in plot, but I came away from it with a very different take. I'd always thought that it was Richard's story. He's the main character, the narrator, the newcomer who infiltrates a tight-knit group. But now, I think it's Henry's story, and I'm surprised that I missed it before.
I think it's partly because I had a bad first impression of Henry. His suits and umbrella, the interrogation of Richard when he joined the class, being the teacher's pet. He seemed like the least impressive and likeable person in the group; even though he was brilliant at languages and ancient history, he was clueless about the modern world.
But Henry drives the action. He makes the plans, and everyone follows him. When he isn't in the room, they're waiting for him. When they learn something new, they need him to tell them what it means and and what he'll do, which basically means, to tell them what will happen next.
When Bunny is spiraling, he isn't afraid of the group; he's afraid of Henry. Even after Richard begins to suspect that Henry was prepared to pin the whole thing on him, he was still loyal. Clearly, Henry is an incredibly magnetic figure. I don't even like him, and I'm still thinking about this a month after I finished the book!
I also found in this reading that I had more sympathy for Bunny. I still think he's an awful person who I wouldn't put up with in real life for anything, but he was in over his head. And it was largely because he had the misfortune to room with Henry his freshman year. Maybe if he'd had another roommate, he would have avoided the slow-motion mental collapse that he goes through before his death.
Plus, such horrible parents!
I like Julian less with each re-reading. He seems to be more important to the story and to the characters than I picked up on at first. I was fooled because he doesn't really have very many scenes. We're told how interesting he was; how his lectures and meals weren't to be described; how brilliant a man he was. But he doesn't really seem to care about his students as individual people very much, and that's dangerous in a teacher who has taken over nearly their entire college lives.
The Secret History is one of my favorite books. I missed it when it was new- I was in college and not keeping up with new books. I only found out about it five or six years ago through Tumblr. I kept seeing references to it, until I finally found it in a library. It didn't disappoint, clearly.