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All booksLiterary fictionThe Secret History
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Literary fiction

The Secret History

by Donna Tartt

Quick take

A murder mystery about a group of classicists at a small New England college and a page-turner that makes reference as easily to T. S. Eliot as it does to TV and fast food.

Why I love it

James Kaplan
Author

Writers, against all reason (and whatever we pretend), are competitive creatures. And so when Vanity Fair assigned me, in the spring of 1992, to profile the author of that fall's big, hot novel, a first novel that had fetched an advance of close to a million dollars, my initial reaction, as a recent first-novelist myself who had garnered some moderately good reviews and sold a couple of thousand books, was envious and dismissive.

Until I read the novel in question: Donna Tartt's The Secret History.

From the first sentence—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—I was drawn almost feverishly into what turned out to be, of all things, an intellectual thriller: a murder mystery whose core characters were a group of classicists at a small New England college, likely to break out at any moment into Latin or Attic Greek; a page-turner that made easy reference to T. S. Eliot, Pliny, and A. E. Housman—and, just as easily, to TV, movies, and fast food.

The book was infused with the thrill of the life of the mind, but its true secret was that its pleasures were visceral. The plot was dark and breathless and tumbling, the writing simple and clean and compelling, filled with images so beautiful they cleared the nasal passages. Repressed sexuality—of all kinds—ran like a river of hot lava throughout, now and then bursting into startling flame.

Who could have produced such a work? The author, it turned out, was a piece of work herself: tiny and mildly androgynous in her boy's clothes, with dark bobbed hair, spooky pale-green eyes, an ever-present Marlboro Gold, and an ever-flowing stream of quotations from Buddha and Plato and Thomas Aquinas, from A. A. Milne and Talking Heads. Tartt came from a tiny hamlet in deepest Mississippi, and she had pledged Kappa Kappa Gamma at Ole Miss before transferring to Bennington, the intellectual-bohemian hothouse of a college in chilly Vermont which bore more than a passing resemblance to Hampden College, The Secret History's Gothic setting.

Surely, I thought, Donna Tartt's own unusual life was a key to the book's puzzles. Yet she deftly parried my biographical prying, salting the basic information she vouchsafed with ever more entertaining quotations and references, cocking her head teasingly like the rare and strange bird she was.

Tiny feathered creatures, it turned out, meant a great deal to her. One in particular: "Goldfinches are the greatest little birds," she told me then. "They're the last to settle down—they just fly around and they're happy for a long time, and just sing and play. And only when it's insanely late in the year, they kind of break down and build their nests. I love goldfinches — they're my favorite bird."

Two decades later, of course, Tartt would publish a Pulitzer Prize-winning third novel called The Goldfinch. Could she have had any inkling in 1992 in which direction her work would take her? Good writers know how to keep their secrets.

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Member thoughts

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All (2480)
Love (1463)
Like (753)
Dislike (264)
2569 ratings
  • 57% Love
  • 29% Like
  • 10% Dislike
  • Billings, MT

    I honestly don’t know why I like this as much as I do. It’s morbid, and filled with unlikeable characters. The writing is wonderful though, and it’s a perfect book to get lost in during the late fall.

  • Jenkintown , PA

    I absolutely loved Tartt’s style in The Goldfinch-it’s so rich and vivid. That same style shines in The Secret History. It’s an absorbing read of a group of students drawn deeper into a dark spiral.

  • Comanche, TX

    Although it wasn’t a book that I was instantly entranced into, I began to really get into it as the pages flew by. I came to love each of the eccentric characters and didn’t want it to end. Great book

  • Searcy, AR

    Truly a masterpiece, Donna Tartt’s novel is cerebral, literary, dark and edgy; discovering the nuances of each character’s psychosis was like slowly unwrapping an assortment of fine dark chocolates.

  • Bridgman, MI

    Just wow. This was a long, challenging read, but so worth it. Tartt created such realisitc, complex characters that I became so invested in &connected to. I truly can’t stop thinking about this book.

  • Lakeville, MA

    I really enjoyed this book & am regretting that it took so long for me to get around to reading it. The characters are all so unique yet each is morally ambiguous in their own way. Highly recommend!

  • Jersey City, NJ

    Love, love, love this book and got me hooked on Tartt's work. The writing is super exquisite with characters both interesting and repulsive at the same time. It drew me in and I didn't want it to end.

  • Mt. Prospect, IL

    Wow. Such a wild ride!! Characters are top-tier; all morally gray & flawed but so well-developed & fleshed out. Setting makes for a perfect fall read. Im so glad I can finally say I've read this book!

  • Bellefonte, PA

    My first read in 2020, & I already know it will be one of my favorites of all time. Such a hauntingly beautiful, thought-provoking literary thriller that lingers long after finishing. Just brilliant.

  • Allison park, PA

    The opening sentence is so enthralling but the next couple hundred pages are slow to pick up. The book does end up being a great read, twisting until the very end. Donna Tartt knows what she is doing.

  • PORT ORANGE, FL

    As an English-major, I fell in love with the cast of characters who embody the dark and ethereal essence of the classic tales we've all studied; regardless of how much of a tragedy their own concluded

  • Fairbanks, AK

    I am very pleasently surprised with this read! I didn't know what to expect after not enjoying The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt but this was much more my speed. I just loved the atompshere of this book.

  • Nashville, TN

    An amazing novel that I could barely put down once I really got into it. It made me nostalgic for my life as an undergrad, but left me grateful for the limits of my own curiosity and academic ambition

  • Washington , DC

    The Secret History isn’t novel- in the best kind of way. It’s a classical Greek tragedy- filled with fate’s design, sympathetically loathsome characters, and murder all set on a college campus.

  • Washington, DC

    A classic of our times. At some points, I found the writing pretentious and the characters hard to deal with, but I think that’s the point. Once I reached the second part, I couldn’t put it down.

  • Seattle, WA

    Mash up How to Get Away with Murder, Catcher in the Rye, Dead Poet’s Society, and The Great Gatsby and you’ll end up with a close approximation to this incredible book. Best I’ve read all year!

  • Agoura Hills, CA

    Exquisitely written, with beautifully intricate characterizations that sucked me in. Does what novels do best: reflect us back to ourselves, and allow us to see each other in our messy full humanity.

  • San Diego, CA

    My favorite book of all time. Perfectly described as a modern Crime & Punishment and incomparably beautiful prose. A compelling, deep, & dark exploration of both overwhelming guilt and lack thereof.

  • Los Angeles, CA

    I LOVE this book. It may go down as one of my favorites. A murder mystery, An outsider making his way in but is he really?, the weird secret lives of the quirky elite. I highly recommend this book.

  • West Lebanon , NH

    I was transfixed by this book, and despite its length, read it in four days. Donna Tartt has an incredible talent to write propulsive and fascinating works about human nature with layers of depth.

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