02 October 2012

The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

Although The Secret History isn't set in a boarding school, the college setting in a small town in Vermont does just the trick to get the autumn reading season off with a murderous start. This is my first selection for Carl's RIP event and I'm thrilled I started with this one.

Richard tells his story from many years before, of one year in the exclusive and small Hampden College in Vermont. Although it immediately opens up with a murder of one of their own and who does it, it is the subsequent deterioration of each of the characters dealing with this horrible event, their social isolation, and the subsequent end to their actions that is thrilling, haunting, and Gothic. It's a book that makes me stamp my foot and wonder where the heck I was when this was first published in 1992.

Recently accepted as a college transfer to Hampden College, Richard has left his life in California without regrets. While a dramatic change in environment and surroundings, compared to his home life led by an overbearing and verbally abusive father, it is the right choice to leave. With a background in Greek, Richard becomes intrigued by the local Classics teacher, Julian, and the five students who exclusively study with him. Obsessed, yet initially denied acceptance,  Richard is then invited to join after helping them with a challenging Greek translation. Soon, he is caught up in the lives of the group, and is stunned by their combined family wealth, which causes Richard to feel more secure in lying about his family and his past, glossing over his public school attendance and opting for wealthy boarding schools as his source of education. He never expects that he would soon find himself embroiled within the murder of Edmund "Bunny" Corcoran, a fellow classmate. No mystery here; we are told immediately who is killed and by whom. It's the subsequent breakdown, the psychological decay each of the characters experience following the murder that is the source of suspense.

In the group are twins Charles and Camilla (this was written in 1992, well before current British royalty) who are orphaned at a young age; Francis, whose aunt's country home is the scene of many of their parties; Henry, the linguistics genius who seems to have a tender hold as leader of the small group; and Bunny, while outgoing, is also extremely bigoted and ignorant. It is surprising that Bunny would ever be accepted into this elite grouping, especially since he really isn't one who excels in academics, and his spelling is horrendous. Could it be because Bunny's father is the President of a bank that helped garner acceptance to this select group? Is it Julian's interest in posh and fortune that overlooks Bunny's constant lack of money (his father never gives him a dime) simply because his father carries rank? With the other classmates also coming from a high pedigree, Richard decides to keep his chain-link, fenced-in, working class house in California a secret. When a hideous secret threatens the group, there is fear that Bunny might reveal it, and his lack of tact and control becomes a ticking time bomb that the group fearfully monitors. While the first half of the book is waiting for Bunny to reveal their secret, the latter half dives into the aftermath of his murder. The group fiercely does everything they can to maintain the perfect surface of their Classics group. Ultimately, it could be this quest of perfection that degrades friendships and shreds morality.  It certainly is fitting that the small class studies Greek culture and language since all I could think as I read this was: Greek tragedy, anyone?

I've read several books this year that will make it on my Best Books Read in 2012 list, but I am fairly confident that, barring any other sleeper hits between now and the end of the year, this will make the top spot. The Secret History was first published in 1992 - again I ask, where was I when this came out? How did I miss it? I would have read this in college, the perfect time! It has all of the elements I love in a book: the compellingly haunting feel to its story, the quiet mystery and ultimate thriller that has been melded into the elusive and obscure literary class. How did I never come across this book that has been reprinted twelve times in the past twenty years?

In several scenes, I was reminded of Lilly Bart in The House of Mirth and her friends, cavorting around in plush, sprawling mansions getting drunk. Only in The Secret History, the characters are in college but similarly thrive off of others' wealth and trust funds, namely their parents. The Secret History feels extremely removed from time and place, yet hinting more towards the turn of the century, and then would shock with contemporary (1980s) references. I admit that while the book meandered much more than necessary, and while at one point, I was so annoyed by the fact that every other page one of the characters is either drunk, on pills, or has just done a line, I was still pulled into this dark psychological thriller in which the after-effects of a murder are even more threatening than the initial act itself. There is no question I initially was shocked by the book's opening pages revealing Bunny's murder so quickly, but by the time it actually does happen, I almost became tense for the other characters, hoping that they would be undiscovered. Bizarre, really, that it made me feel that way. I was crossing my fingers in hopes that killers wouldn't be caught? What is that? But the story's twisted anti-heroes certainly do make it a bit blurry on who the actual victims are, to a certain extent. At one point, I was so annoyed with Bunny and fearful for Richard, Henry, Francis, Charles and Camilla, that I was not unhappy in the least that he was offed.

The book certainly dives into extremely sensitive issues. There is rampant drug use and alcoholism, incest, and complete debauchery. It is forgiving of these several times over, but there is a quieter discussion of ego, power, and control. And we are really not reading about the most ethical of characters. I wouldn't even say that any of them are likable, save for maybe Francis? I'm not sure. But it is beautifully written, and so haunting that I couldn't put it down. I cannot wait to read her other book, The Little Friend.

Passages of Note (there were so many to choose from):
Henry, of course, had done marvelously. He didn't say so, but then he didn't have to. He, in some senses, was the author of this drama and he had waited in the wings a long while for this moment, when he could step onto the stage and assume the role he'd written for himself: cool, but friendly; hesitant; reticent with details; bright, but not as bright as he really was. (p.331)
No one had known him all that well but it was a strange feature of his personality that the less one actually knew about him, the more one felt one did. Viewed from a distance, his character projected an impression of solidity and wholeness which was in fact as insubstantial as a hologram; up close he was all motes and light, you could pass your hand right through him. If you stepped back far enough, however, the illusion would click in again and there he would be, bigger than life, squinting at you from behind his little glasses and raking back a dank lock of hair with one hand. (p.357)
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf Inc.
Release Date: 10/16/1992
Pages: 524

Others said:
The Awl
Book Snob
Jenny's Books
The Literary Amnesiac
The Literary Bunny
Maggie Stiefvater
Sophisticated Dorkiness
Things Mean A Lot

FTC Disclosure: I first checked this book out of my local Virginia Beach Public Library and then purchased the book to keep on my personal bookshelf.

About the Author
Donna Tartt is the author of two novels, The Secret History and The Little Friend, both of which have received high praise and multiple reprints. Born in Mississippi, Tartt attended Bennington College and became a part of the "Literary Brat Pack" in the late 1980s that comprised of young East Coast writers including Breat Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho. Tartt is the winner of the 2003 WH Smith Literary Award for her second book The Little Friend.

The author does not have a website or Twitter account that I could find. If you know of it, please shoot me a note so I can link to it here.

This is my first selection for Carl's RIP event. Read other participants' reviews here.


  1. That sounds somewhat familiar. I'm not sure if I read it or have just heard a lot about it. We lived in France in 1992 so I probably didn't read it then. Hm. . .

  2. I've had a copy of this one forever! Never picked it up. Then I downloaded the audio and never listened to it. I think it's just intimidating to me because it's such a chunk. Not sure why I'd be intimidated anyway since I have no problem read IT or The Stand.

  3. This is one of my favorite books of all time, and it is also a favorite of many. I read it many years ago, and still can't forget that it's an amazing and thought-provoking examination of the human conscience. I am so glad to see that it's a favorite for you. It deserves its place at the top!

  4. Oh my, this is one of my favorite all time books! I keep meaning to do a reread. glad you enjoyed it so much!

  5. I've had this book out from my local library for so long I've started to feel guilty when I renew it - so many people list it as a favourite book so I know that I want to read it eventually but I just keep not quite picking it up! Now I'm convinced that it should be my next read.

  6. Hang my head in shame...I've never read it. Loved your comments/thoughts.

  7. I read it about 6 months ago and had the same reaction you did -- how have I not read this before?! So sumptuous and disturbing and all around awesome.

  8. I liked Secret History better than Little Friend, but both were read many years ago when they were first released. enjoy Little Friend.

  9. YAY so glad you liked this! It's one of my all-time favorite books and is slowing climbing its way up my favorite-books list into, eventually probably, my five desert-island books. I love the way Donna Tartt draws you into sympathizing with murder.

  10. I love this book--definitely need to do a re-read!

  11. I've heard great things about this book -- I'm slightly intimidated by how awful the characters seem -- I hate so easily -- but everyone says this is such a marvelous read it needs to go on my TBR!

  12. I LOVE THIS BOOK!!! words cannot describe how much i loved it. definitely one of my all-time favorite books. i spent a few weeks after reading it still digesting it, not ready to move on from it.

  13. Yes I flew through this novel in 1992 .... wow it's a page-turner with debauchery but lives an impression!

  14. This is one of my all time favourite books and so I love reading a review from somebody who enjoyed it so much. Donna Tart is a genius with words. The book is so beautiful to read and I was totally drawn into the world. I loved her descriptions of people and place. Her writing style reminded me a little of Daphne DuMaurier and another favourite story of mine - Rebecca. Don't know if you'e read that but you might enjoy it also.
    Lovely to read that review.
    Lynn :D

  15. Not only did it make my top list of the year(s) I read it, and there have been several, it makes my top ten of all time list. I love this book so much I didn't even review it, reluctant to try to put into words the web which Tartt spun for me. Love it. Every time I read it.

  16. I love, love, love this book... a reread is long overdue!

  17. I just read this last year, and I loved it too! In 1992 I was in high school, so this wasn't on my radar- I am glad I found it though. I love her writing style, and The Little Friend was just as good, if not better, in my opinion. Great review!

  18. I read this years ago and completely agree - one of my favorite books of all time. So glad you loved it!