Plot Junkie: The Secret History, Donna Tartt

I finished The Secret History on Sunday. And then I started the massive amounts of homework that had been assigned for this week. Maybe it will illustrate how absolutely gob-smackingly wonderful this book is that the decision to spend Saturday with a novel instead of my assignments still—after a week of rushing to get things done on time—seems like a brilliant idea. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

The Secret History was the first novel of Donna Tartt . Usually debut novels get an initial run of 10,000—Knopf ordered 75,000. Clearly they were right—the book went on to become an international bestseller.  Not sure how I missed it for this long—it’s been around since 1992, but I love the idea that there are  fabulous books out there, placidly waiting for me on dusty bookshelves until I get there.

Anyway. About the book—The Secret History is set in small liberal-arts college in Hampden, Vermont. Along with all of the expected major courses of study, there is a very small Classics department. Very small as in five students. And these five students take all of their courses from one teacher, the charismatic and mysterious Julian Morrow.

Richard Papan, our narrator, is from a small town in Plano, California. In an attempt to get as far away from home as possible he applies—almost on a whim—to Hampden College. Richard had previously studied Greek, so he wants to continue in the language for his liberal arts requirements but is told that the professor isn’t accepting new students. But after suggesting an elusive translation for a word the five students were grappling with, he gets an interview with Julian and is admitted to the program.

But the book doesn’t begin there. Here’s where the book begins:

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. He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. … It is difficult to believe that Henry’s modest plan could have worked so well despite these unforeseen events. We hadn’t intended to hide the body where it couldn’t be found. In fact, we hadn’t hidden it at all….

The book works backward from the first page confession of murder– explaining how Richard came to be a part of the group, how the group works, where the events that led to the murder started, how they progressed, how the group unraveled and reformed—until, three quarters through the secrecy and lies and the madness and dread of the impending event is almost unmanageable. The actual event is almost a relief, until you—along with the characters—realize that the event, the murder, wasn’t the worst thing. Now there’s an investigation and questions and the sneaking suspicion that maybe your friends are going to make you the patsy.

It’s excruciating. In the best of all possible ways. The college is so remote as to be somewhat claustrophobic; the group is intelligent and interesting and dreadfully, beautifully articulate. And way messed up: unable to function with “normal” people, co-dependent, abusers. Lost boys, in a way.

And through it all Richard, our hapless narrator, is pulled more and more deeply into conflicts, being made the confidant of several of the individual members of the group, but always worrying that his position in the group isn’t very stable. Because, of course, the group itself isn’t very stable. tsh

Really, one of the best books I’ve read in ages.

Fans have been begging for film adaptation of this novel for ages, and many of them have posted “dream casts” online. This one is one of my favorites—click on the image to be taken to the image source, which explains the choices.

Reminds me of:

First, and most emphatically, Tara French’s The Likeness. (Reviewed on my blog here.) The plot isn’t similar, but the world certainly is. The insular, claustrophobic group of erudite and articulate students, joined by a secret, who may or may not be able to trust each other. So similar. Besides, that’s a great book too. So yeah, read that.

Other similar worlds: Jeffery Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot. Academia and insular groups. (My review here.) Other reviewers have suggested The Rules of Engagement, Bret Easton Ellis, as a companion book.

Other similar world views: This connection is a bit tangential, and difficult for me to articulate, but I think the world is similar to Iain Pears’ A Dream of Scipio. A Dream of Scipio deals with, among other things, the tension and connection between truth and beauty and our responsibility to the one and the lure of the other. Read more about it here.

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4 thoughts on “Plot Junkie: The Secret History, Donna Tartt

    1. Yes, I loved the book. Absolutely. I’m not sure if it’s knocked Byatt’s Possession out of favorite book status, but it’s definitely on the short list. And I think the similarity that I’m seeing between The Marriage Plot and this is slightly more than the setting–there are a lot of books about academia out there–but I think both have a bit of a fear of the fanatical side of academia, a–much learning hath made thee mad–type thing. Opinion?

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