I’ve been describing this book to my friends as “How to Get Away With Murder, but without Viola Davis.” Except, I’ve never actually watched How to Get Away With Murder, so I don’t think that’s accurate in the slightest. In any case, simply put this book is like a reverse who-dun-it: as in, we know that a group of students murdered one of their classmates right from the get-go, we just aren’t clear as to why or how this came to be.
The Secret History occurs through the eyes of protagonist, Richard Papen, who is a young student living on campus at Hampden College. Now, the one thing I couldn’t tell you is exactly what time period this occurs in: for some reason I couldn’t figure it out, but I think it’s the late-80s/early90s??? Just, the prices of things, the technology, the language, etc got me a little confused. But continuing on with the plot, Richard tells the story of how we wanted to study Greek at college, but the only way he could do this would be if he is able to integrate himself into a tiny class of 5 students, with an old teacher named Julian who is very selective of who he teaches and never really wants any more than 5 students. These students form the eclectic, eccentric little group that Richard soon calls friends: these 6 students hardly ever see anyone else besides their fellow Greek students. Richard quickly comes to adore his new friends, goes to the country with them on weekends, and essentially becomes a staple in their little lives. However, he is not as involved as he thinks he is, and some interesting acts behind the scenes start to break some of the ties between different characters in the story, inevitably leading to the decision that one of the students –affectionately known as Bunny—should be killed.
The main cast of characters in this little group of friends are all interesting and different, though at times they come across as quite spoilt, a bit pompous, and behave in pretentious ways or have somewhat bizarre and grandiose ideas that I can’t entirely wrap my head around. But, they all added a certain flavor to the story, which I enjoyed. I also ended up picturing them as certain actors in my mind, even if this didn’t entirely make sense at times? It was like a little movie in my brain, which can make things interesting at times. And easier to envision the characters, in some ways? In any case, the main group of students the story centers around are as follows:
Richard Papen: Our protagonist, and a young man who leaves for Hampden College as a way to escape his bored life in California. Richard works hard at his studies, and unlike many of his friends, actually has a job in order to make his own money. In my mind, Richard took the shape of Jessie Williams (specifically circa “The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants” for some reason??)
Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran: The victim of the plotted murder. In my mind, the mere mention of a tweed jacket and floppy hair made me picture Bunny as Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor. Okay, that works. Bunny is a loud, boisterous young man, who has some issues with his studies and has a tendency to take advantage of his friend’s generosity. Prone to mood-swings and switching between being a fun-loving friend and insulting, it is sometimes hard to decide if Bunny is really all that bad of a person or not. Whatever the case, people tend to remember him.
Henry Winters: Who I would call the ring-leader of the small student group. He is always the one who the others go to as he always has a plan and an ability to keep calm and stoic in most situations. Actually, he seems pretty straightforward and stoic all the time, is incredibly intelligent knowing multiple languages and constantly reading and learning new things, and also has a great depth of wealth at his disposal from his family. Described as being a big young man with dark hair and blue eyes (plus his name is Henry), my mind automatically envisioned a young Henry Cavill in this part.
Charles Macaulay: One of set of twins, orphaned at a young age and raised with his hiss sister, Camilla, by their grandmother. Charles initially comes across as the most friendly and easy to talk to member of this small group, though he does appear to have a drinking problem that escalates with the events of the novel. Described in a none-too-specific way, except to say that he is blonde, I found myself picturing Bradley James, specifically with his Merlin hair.
Camilla Macaulay: Charles’ twin sister, and an object of affection of most of the males in the group, as well as others outside. Richard in particular becomes infatuated with her, though I couldn’t help but feel like she was somehow distanced from the others in certain ways, in a world of her own. In my mind, Camilla was pictured as a Teresa Palmer.
Francis Abernathy: Described as being somewhat fox-faced with firery red hair and quite fashionable, you’d think I would picture Eddie Redmayne in this part. It would only make sense! But no, a young Domnhall Gleeson took this spot, and I’m not mad that my brain made this decision. Francis was definitely a character that slowly grew on me in time. Also from a wealthy family, Francis seems to be a somewhat elusive member of the group to really understand, but is always there with a complaint, and a tendency to be overly dramatic (right down to his hypochondriasis).
Strangely enough, those characters I began the book liking the most, I soon came to like the least, and those who I liked the least to begin with I ended up being quite unhappy with at the end. I think that is a major part of the book itself, to be honest: the idea that we sometimes wear rose-coloured glasses when looking at or dealing with certain people, only to find that they are not who we once thought they were. Idealizing people can often lead us down paths we never wanted, or lead us with nothing but feelings of disappointment. Perhaps this book is telling me to look at people more objectively and to try and truly see them for who they are, rather than let me preconceptions or judgments (whether positive or not) cloud my vision in understanding them on more fundamental level. People are not always who we think they are or want them to be. Though in general, I can’t help but feel like all of the main characters in this particular novel are somewhat selfish and that I probably would not end up liking any of them very much if I knew them in real life. But from the distance of fiction? Certainly!
Beyond these themes of relationships and the ways we see people, other themes that I found particularly interesting were the concept of appearances that the students hold in terms of their scholarly nature and wealth, the nature of parental figures, and the exploration of sexuality. While some were more in-focus than others, all added to the complexity of the book, to not just be about one single thing, and to make the characters feel somewhat more rounded in a some ways (Henry in particular, is a hard shell to really crack into, I find, and might almost come across as a caricature at times, were it not for certain aspects of his relationship with Julian that come into play near the end of the novel).
Overall, I found The Secret History to be engaging, even though at some points I found it to be a bit long. And yet, paradoxically, by the time the ending came around, I wanted there to be more. Regardless, even though I could not entirely grasp these student’s fascination with the Greek and some of their strange ways of life and romanticized views (hey, I like Greek history and mythology, but not to this extent), I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The writing wasn’t too simple, but also not overly stylized to the point where I got confused as sometimes happens. I honestly feel like this might be one of those books that I need to read a second time around, just to fully grasp the nuances of it and perhaps catch things that I didn’t the first time through.
[As always, this review is double-posted on my personal blog]