“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt

The author of The Secret History, Donna Tartt, is best known for her book, The Goldfinch, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014 and which was recently made into a movie. Even though the movie was almost universally panned by critics, I loved it, which made me want to read more of Donna Tartt’s work. The Secret History is her first book, published in 1992, and like The Goldfinch, it is extremely long (592 pages) and amazingly detailed. In fact, given the length of her books (The Goldfinch was 784 pages), I was not surprised to find that she publishes a book only every 10 years or so — The Goldfinch, published in 2013, was her third book, following her second one, The Little Friend, which was published in 2002. 

The Secret History came to me so highly recommended that I didn’t bother with knowing what it was about — my copy of the book from the library was missing the blurb — and I plunged right into it, prepared to stop reading as soon as it got uninteresting. And for such a long book, this seemed more likely than not. But much to my surprise, I found it fascinating and while it did lose a bit of momentum towards the end, I was so invested in the story by this time that I had no trouble finishing it — I had to know what happens in the end.

The book is set in a small liberal arts college in Vermont and the protagonist is a new student, Richard, who has transferred to it from a local college in California that he attended after high school. He is not close to his parents and they do not care much about him either, and with no siblings as well, there is no real family that he is close to. This makes it believable that he would be strongly attracted to a small group of students who keep to themselves and choose to be isolated from the other students. In fact, not only do they distance themselves socially, they are academically separated as well, as they study Greek exclusively under the tutelage of a brilliant, charismatic, and eccentric professor, who seems to have the kind of leverage with the college that is needed to create such a closed classroom.

Richard manages to break through and get inducted in the group, and at first all goes well — he loves the closeness and the camaraderie as well as getting deeper into Greek and the classics. But then, there is an accidental murder during one of the Greek rituals being performed by the group (it is called “Bacchanalia” — there is actually such a thing, as I found when I looked it up), and this murder is then followed by a deliberate murder of a student in the group who was blackmailing the others to keep quiet about it. As a reader, you know this is coming, since the book starts with a prologue about the murder — so it is not a “murder mystery” as such — but you don’t know the “how” and the “why,” which keeps you hooked. Then there is the whole aftermath of the second murder, how it plays out with the family of the dead student, and what effect it has on the group.

While the basic premise of The Secret History — that a professor can form an exclusive club of students within a college and dictate their academic requirements, that some students would actually want to be part of such a club that won’t really give them a usable degree, and that anyone would want to get so knee-deep into Greek that they don’t care about learning anything else — is downright unbelievable, it is to the author’s credit that she can take something so implausible and craft a story around it that seems so believable, so authentic. And the book was so vivid, so full of details about the lives of these students and about life in a college town, not to mention the extensive discourse on Greek mythology and Greek philosophy, that I was completely hooked.

And rather than being intimidated by the length of the book, it was so nice to have a good long book to sink my teeth into!

The Secret History
Author: Donna Tartt   
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: September 1992 

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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