The Likeness and The Secret History

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Reading these two back-to-back was an odd experience. I had no idea they would be so similar but because of that I couldn’t help comparing them. Between the two I definitely preferred The Likeness, but they each had their unique strengths while essentially telling the same story. Both focus on a close-knit group of college students that must cope after a tragedy happens in their midst.

The Likeness
by Tana French

What a ride! As others have noted, you need to suspend your disbelief at the onset to accept the premise. Detective Cassie Maddox is called to a murder scene where the dead body of a woman virtually identical to herself has been discovered. What follows is an intense preparation and training for Maddox to go undercover as the murdered girl to try and discover who committed the crime. 

To complicate things, Maddox discovers that the woman has been using her old undercover alias, Lexie Madison. She was a college student living with four other students in an old house. The others have an odd symbiotic relationship and Cassie, pretending to be Lexie, must convince them that she’s the girl they know and love. 

The reason this book works so well, despite the far-fetched plot, is the characters. They are beautifully drawn and just enchanting. The world that French creates is an intoxicating one. Just like Cassie, I couldn’t help but get caught up in their strange situation. There’s no way Cassie would have become so enthralled by that odd “family” if she hadn’t had her spirit completely broken by her partner Rob in the series’ first book In the Woods. I missed Rob and Cassie’s easy camaraderie in this book, but I was glad she mentioned him so many times. He was such a huge part of her life and in a way this book is her way of grieving the loss of their friendship before she can truly move on with her life. 

BOTTOM LINE: A beautiful mystery that shouldn’t be missed. Read In the Woods first to understand the characters better, but know that this book is even better than that one! 

“I just believe that vices should be enjoyed; otherwise what’s the point in having them?” 

“I hate nostalgia, it’s laziness with prettier accessories.” 

“I had forgotten even how to want something slow, something soft, something with wide spaces and its own sure-footed swaying rhythms.” 

“I wanted to drink and dance until a fuse blew in my brain and there was nothing left in the world except the music and the blaze of lights and the four of them surrounding me, laughing, dazzling, untouchable.”

The Secret History
by Donna Tartt

This strange dark story starts with a murder and the rest of the book is a tense look at the aftermath. A group of students at a small New England college grow incredibly close when they enroll in a Greek study program under the direction of the illusive professor, Julian Morrow. Our narrator, Richard, is the last to join the tight-knit group and he has a hard time fitting in with the wealthy crew. The circle includes a set of twins, Charles and Camilla, the effusive Bunny, domineering Henry, and Francis. 

After the initial shock of the murder on the opening pages, the story behind it slowly unfolds, revealing a torrid tragedy of Greek proportions. Richard is the eternal observer, rarely initiating action, only reacting. It’s through his passive eyes that we see the events, which gives the whole book a detached feel. You can’t put it down, but you never feel connected, it’s an odd balance. 

The most fascinating part of the book for me was the eroding nature of guilt and the different effect it had on each person. The way we react to things says so much about our true natures. In that way it reminded me a lot of Crime and Punishment. 

BOTTOM LINE: An interesting read, one that will certainly stick with me. Honestly, I think that if I hadn’t read The Likeness directly after this one I probably would have liked it more. The two books are so similar in their basic premise, but The Likeness was the more engaging and enthralling of the two for me and this one suffered in comparison. I did like this one; I just loved The Likeness more. 

"But of course I didn't see this crucial moment for what it was; I suppose we never do." 

"There is nothing wrong with the love of Beauty. But Beauty - unless she is wed to something more meaningful - is always superficial"

"... instead of merely loitering in the bullet's path like a bystander which I so essentially am."


Sandy Nawrot said...

Just about ANYTHING you would read after The Likeness would be a let down I am afraid. You know I love French from the bottom of my heart. Her books rock my world. No one does character study and chemistry quite like her.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Oh wow, I wasn't aware of Similarities. I read Secret History and enjoyed it (5+ years ago) and I just read In the Woods -- so Likeness will be my next read.

Sarah Joyce said...

I loved Secret History, I think I'll have to pick up likeness next!

Heather said...


Ahem. Sorry about that.

Now I'm thinking I need to check out this Tana French. She's not as crazy as Gillian Flynn is she? Cause I'm still traumatized by Gone Girl.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Sandy - So true, the woman is the master of a great character study.

Diane - I had no idea they were such similar books. It was strange to read them so close together.

Sarah - It's so good!

Heather - No, definitely not as crazy or dark as Flynn. I think peoples' main complaint with French is the ending of her first novel. She doesn't resolve everything and that bothered some people. I think her second one, The Likeness, was even better!

Kat @ NoPageLeftBehind said...

I reeeeally want to read both of these! I loved French's In the Woods and The Likeness is sitting unread on my Kindle. Hopefully I'll get to it soon! Love the comparison of the two - great idea for a review!

Kristi said...

I loved The Likeness. So good. The premise is far-fetched, but it worked. It was by far my favorite of her books. I read The Faithful Place and was a bit letdown, not because it's a bad book, but it just wasn't The Likeness.

I haven't read much about The Secret History, but it sounds like something I'd like.

Jenny said...

I liked The Secret History pretty well when I first read it, but I have grown to LOVE it on rereading it. Now I read it once a year, and it's become one of my favorite books of all time. I only mention it! In case you are ever bored one day in a year or two from now and you have a moment to reread Secret History.

Kerry M said...

I could not agree with you more! I read The Secret History this month and The Likeness last year, but remarked to a friend of mine throughout how similar they were (she was reading The Secret History with me). The friend groupings, the odd mysteriousness of their world and relationships... so so similar. I loved them both!

Jillian said...

I bought The Secret History very recently and want to read it as soon as possible. A lot of people recommended it to me when I asked for book suggestions. It does sound very interesting.

Jenners said...

I read The Secret History ages and ages and ages ago … to the point where I barely remember it other than liking it. I think I might need to reread.

And I'm so glad you liked The Likeness!! Cassie is so great, isn't she? I got so caught up in that book.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Kat - Definitely get to The Likeness when you're in the mood for it. It was even better than In the Woods!

Kristi - It's good to know The Faithful Place wa sa bit of a let down for you. Right now my expectations for her books are so high, they might need to come down a bit before I read that one.

Jenny - Some books are so much better when you re-read them! I'll add The Secret History to my list of books to re-read and maybe I'll like it more the second time around.

Kerry M - Man, I just had no idea. They were written years apart, but they could have come from the same basic idea!

Jillian - I kept seeing it pop up on people's favorite books of all-time lists. So that's what prompted me to read it.

Jenners - You were so right about that one, I loved it! Cassie is just a fantastic character.

that's about it... said...

Another one that had similarities to The Secret History was Jennifer McMahon's Dismantled. New England, close knit college students at a small college, death in the group and its ramifications when the survivors grew up. I was reading them both at around the same time and it got a little weird in the old noggin. Jennifer McMahon is fluffier than Donna Tartt but an enjoyable read nonetheless.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

that's about it - Isn't it funny how those things can happen at the same time!

Unknown said...

Recently read both of these books, not realizing that they had similar storylines. Like you, I preferred "The Likeness." Characters are well-drawn and compelling; and, despite serious character flaws, they are all far more likable/relatable/understandable than the characters in "The Secret History." I cared what happened to the people in "The Likeness," but didn't actually mind if the students in "The Secret History" all faced expulsion/imprisonment/death in, because I couldn't stand them and thought they should get what they deserved. Overall, in my opinion, French's novel was more complex and characters less exaggerated and grotesque. Plus, her writing is luminous and pulls you right into the scene. I experienced that house in my mind.