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The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Literary fiction

The Secret History

by Donna Tartt

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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.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_400

    400+ pages

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Unreliable

    Unreliable narrator

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Murder

    Murder

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Academic

    Academic

Synopsis

Under the influence of a charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at a New England college discover a way of thought and life a world away from their banal contemporaries. But their search for the transcendent leads them down a dangerous path, beyond human constructs of morality.

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Free sample

Get an early look from the first pages of A Secret History.
The Secret History

PROLOGUE

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 was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history—state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter; the college closed, the dye factory in Hampden shut down, people coming from New Hampshire, upstate New York, as far away as Boston.

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 but had simply left it where it fell in hopes that some luckless passer-by would stumble over it before anyone even noticed he was missing. This was a tale that told itself simply and well: the loose rocks, the body at the bottom of the ravine with a clean break in the neck, and the muddy skidmarks of dug-in heels pointing the way down; a hiking accident, no more, no less, and it might have been left at that, at quiet tears and a small funeral, had it not been for the snow that fell that night; it covered him without a trace, and ten days later, when the thaw finally came, the state troopers and the FBI and the searchers from the town all saw that they had been walking back and forth over his body until the snow above it was packed down like ice.

It is difficult to believe that such an uproar took place over an act for which I was partially responsible, even more difficult to believe I could have walked through it—the cameras, the uniforms, the black crowds sprinkled over Mount Cataract like ants in a sugar bowl—without incurring a blink of suspicion. But walking through it all was one thing; walking away, unfortunately, has proved to be quite another, and though once I thought I had left that ravine forever on an April afternoon long ago, now I am not so sure. Now the searchers have departed, and life has grown quiet around me, I have come to realize that while for years I might have imagined myself to be somewhere else, in reality I have been there all the time: up at the top by the muddy wheel-ruts in the new grass, where the sky is dark over the shivering apple blossoms and the first chill of the snow that will fall that night is already in the air.

What are you doing up here? said Bunny, surprised, when he found the four of us waiting for him.

Why, looking for new ferns, said Henry.

And after we stood whispering in the underbrush—one last look at the body and a last look round, no dropped keys, lost glasses, everybody got everything?—and then started single file through the woods, I took one glance back through the saplings that leapt to close the path behind me.

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Why I love it

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 ratings (7,092)

  • Lindsey P.

    Eden, NY

    The best book I’ve read in at least a year. It’s always about the journey in Tartt’s books but the ending will still surprise you. I simply can’t stop thinking about this story and its characters.

  • Sophie B.

    Dillon, 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.

  • Denise H.

    Neotsu, OR

    ❤️this book! A deep read, very well thought out; find yourself swept along the current of mystery and intrigue alongside the story’s core players as they discover the interplay, & horror they created!

  • Kelly D.

    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.

  • Ankita M.

    Redmond, WA

    I loved this book. There isn’t any specific plot line or twist to it - it’s just well written and as someone also studying classics, it resonated with me. I can see why others may not enjoy it though.

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