The Secret History

Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, 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 they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last – inexorably – into evil.

Summary from Goodreads

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“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

The first sentence of The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s debut novel of 1992, might be superior to at least 90% of the first sentences of all of the books I’ve ever read. I mean, how can you put down a book after a first sentence like that?

You can’t.

The Secret History is narrated by Richard Papen, a Gatsby-esque, Californian 19-year-old who after a year of medical school (mistake) and basically estrangement from his (mostly indifferent) parents, travels to New England to attend Hampden College, where he plans to study English Literature. Quickly, however, he falls under the spell of a group of Classics students who study with one very particular, ever-so-exclusive professor, separate to the rest of the students at the university. He talks his way into the class, and into the lives of the rich and enigmatic group.

It turns out to be the worst decision he’s ever made.

The novel is, at its heart, a thriller, but it’s a thriller that instead of asking the usual ‘who dunnit’, instead leaves us asking – how? How does it come to be that this group of – admittedly eccentric but not overtly unusual – students murder one of their classmates?

It’s remarkable that in this 600-some page tome, Tartt manages not to let up on the sense of foreboding disaster for even a second. If the group aren’t threatened with exposure from outside sources, they are crumbling from within. It’s quite a situation when you discover that the murder you committed together really only scratches the surface of the mess.

It’s funny – there were many elements in this novel that were familiar. From the group of classmates reading way too much into their school work, to the group themselves; bookish Henry, hot but creepy twins Charles and Camilla and poor half closeted Frances, all felt somewhat archetypal. Richard, even, the working class boy who invents himself a new history to fit in with his rich friends, didn’t feel new as such. And yet, in Tartt’s hands the story felt completely unique.

The richness of her language and the perfect balance between plot and character – what I loved so much about this and The Goldfinch was the way that Tartt establishes an expansive and complicated situation and then delves deep into how her characters respond to it – create a disturbing, hedonistic, shocking and anxious world that I couldn’t help but get lost in.

There is a reason so many people recommend this one.

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Author: Lydia Tewkesbury

25. Loves a good story.

14 thoughts on “The Secret History”

  1. *yells* I’m so glad you liked this, it’s one of my absolute all-time favorites. I totally agree that Tartt has this way of taking familiar characters and familiar situations and moulding them in a way that you can’t imagine them anywhere else BUT her book, you know?

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    1. It’s so good!! I am basically in love her her at this point. Absolutely – she has this seamless way of switching between dramatic storyline and the interior life of her characters that I just LOVE. It’s rare that someone’s work feels unique, but Tartt’s totally does.

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    1. I know! Best first line ever. Thanks so much – I hope you do. Whenever people ask me to recommend a book I always go for Donna Tartt. I’ve only read 2 of her novels but they’ve both utterly blown me away.

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  2. Wonderful review, Lydia! You actually install shame in me for not having read this yet. It really does sound like it was brilliantly developed, both story and characters. Definitely need to get my hands on a copy of this one ASAP.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, I LOVE that first sentence and that book sounds intriguing as hell. I’m not usually reading thrillers, but it feels like that one is filled with tension, and this little group of characters and…. well, you have me really, really, reaaaaaally curious about that one. So happy you loved it so much and thank you for the recommendation! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s so good. I think as a non-thriller reader you’d probably still like it, because it doesn’t read like a traditional thriller at all. In both the books of hers I’ve read Tartt has built this crazy situation, but then rather write something plot driven, dived deep into the interior life of the characters. I just love her so much!

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