The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Synopsis from book flap, courtesy of

Storytelling in the grand manner, The Secret History is a debut remarkable for its hypnotic erudition and acute psychological suspense, and for the richness of its emotions, ideas, and language.

There are the confessions, years afterward, of a young man who found at a small college the life of privilege and intellect he’d long coveted – and rarely has the glorious experience of youth infatuated with knowledge and with itself been so achingly realized. Then, amazed, Richard Papen is drawn into the ultimate inner circle: five students, worldly and self-assured, selected by a charismatic classics professor to participate in the search for truth and beauty. Together they study the mysteries of ancient Greek culture and spend long weekends at an old country house, reading, boating, basking in an Indian summer that stretches late into autumn.

Mesmerized by his new comrades, Richard is unaware of the crime which they have committed in his dreamy, unwitting presence. But once taken into their confidence, he and the others slowly and inevitably begin to believe in the necessity of murdering the one classmate and friend who might betray their secret and their future.

Hugely ambitious and compulsively readable, this is a chronicle of deception and complicity, of Dionysian abandon, of innocence corrupted by self-love and moral arrogance; and, finally, it is a story of guilt and responsibility. An astonishing achievement by any standard, The Secret History immediately establishes Donna Tartt as a supremely gifted novelist.

Nothing will make a book more unpalatable or pretentious (and, in some cases, intimidating) than calling it a thinking person’s book. But this, essentially, is what The Secret History is, although it is also many other things as well: a comedy of manners, a tragedy, a psychological thriller, a romance (although not in the bodice-ripping sense); that’s not to say that it’s not pretentious because it is.

Our protagonist/narrator, Richard Papen, is a young man in with a natural aptitude for Greek. Despite this gift, he figures he will enter the medical field as that is what will provide the highest income and will therefore allow him to flee his humble origins. It doesn’t take Richard too long to realize that he has no talent for medicine; he is, in fact, an abject failure at his classes from the beginning. On a whim (he liked the school brochure), he decides to fill out an application to Hampden College, in Vermont, and is surprised but grateful to be accepted.

Richard continues his study of Greek at Hampden with Julian Morrow, the Classics professor who handpicks all his students. Julian’s class consists of five eccentric characters (it’s a liberal arts college, after all) – Francis, the twins Charles and Camilla, Bunny, and Henry – and, though Richard initially looked upon the group in awe, he eventually ingratiates himself into their set.

Francis is the best-dressed in the group and considered universally handsome; he is, of course, later revealed to be gay, which is not altogether surprising, given that he wears a pince-nez, a questionable sartorial statement, to say the least. Charles and Camilla are described as luminous and androgynously beautiful. They are extremely devoted to each other although Charles’ jealousy of Henry drives them apart; as it turns out, Charles’ jealousy was more than brotherly as the twins also sometimes sleep together. (Greek enough for you?) Bunny is the unknowingly obnoxious friend who always imposes, always borrows money, but never returns the favor. Henry is the enigmatic leader of the group, the most intelligent and the wealthiest of all these boarding-school rejects, and it is under his unquestioned but subtle leadership that this group of friends do something very very naughty.

One night, having overdosed on their delusions of grandeur, Henry, Francis, and the twins decide to hold a bacchanal. Somewhere between the hallucinations and the (implied) orgy, a chicken farmer was viciously murdered. The entire party is scared sober and drives home drenched in the farmer’s blood.

Bunny eventually discovers their secret and begins to use it to his advantage, blackmailing Henry into funding a trip to Italy, taking advantage of the twins’ hospitality, usurping Francis of his allowance. The friends ultimately decide that the only end to the bribery and to their fear of being exposed is to murder Bunny. Richard knows nothing of the murdered farmer or the blackmailing until Henry decides to bring him into the fold; before he knows it, Richard is an accomplice to Bunny’s murder. True, he himself didn’t commit the murder, but he wasn’t exactly rushing to stop Henry from pushing Bunny off a cliff, so Richard can’t wash his hands of the whole deal. The rest of the novel thereafter deals with the aftermath of Bunny’s death: the friends’ guilt (or lack thereof, in Henry’s case), the subsequent lies, and the unforeseen consequences.

Donna Tartt is such an accomplished writer that she makes all these events seem commonplace as opposed to the outrageous, implausible events that they are. None of the characters remain very likeable – although Bunny and Richard elicit the most sympathy, even they are exposed as being manipulative and amoral (in differing degrees) by the end of the novel – but they do remain fascinating, which is yet another measure of Ms. Tartt’s skill.

Thematically, The Secret History reminds me a bit of The Great Gatsby. Richard, like Nick Carraway, is thrust into a situation beyond his control. Both Richard and Nick are ambitious and essentially living above their station. They are the working-class anti-heroes who clean up their rich friends’ messes; although they have both worked hard for their acceptance in their respective groups, the truth is that by reason of birth and circumstance, both Richard and Nick are outsiders and will remain so. The idealization of wealth is present in both novels, as is the disillusionment of it. The peril of hubris is evident in both novels as well, although The Secret History certainly infuses it with much more melodrama.

Stylistically, Ms. Tartt is a bit more precious than F. Scott Fitzgerald. Part of what I admire about Mr. Fitzgerald’s writing is that what he omits is just as significant as what he includes. Donna Tartt, on the other hand, is all about florid prose; everything is just lush and larger-than-life and achingly vivid. That’s not to say that it’s not beautiful writing; Ms. Tartt’s voice is unique and masterful. But there were times when it made The Secret History ponderous and suffocating. However, having written so well about the peril and the thrill of hubris, perhaps Ms. Tartt can be forgiven from suffering the same affliction. (Although this review is overlong, there really are so many levels to The Secret History that I could keep writing and come up with an even more detailed and cohesive analysis. Yes, it really is that good.) Regardless of the minor quibbles outlined above, this is a great novel, and it is apparent that Ms. Tartt knows it.

1 Comment

Filed under Debuts, Speculative Fiction

One response to “The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  1. Great review very insightful and thoughtful.

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