Week 26: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

How far would you go to protect a secret? Would you lie for it? Perhaps. Run away from the problem, flee the scene- maybe. Would you kill to protect it? Hopefully not. If I told you that the lives of your closest friends depended on protecting this secret, does it change your answer? In the very first post that I made on this blog, week 1, I reviewed Donna Tartt’s new and insanely successful The Goldfinch, and 25 weeks later, as I begin the second stretch of this 50-week journey, I find myself reviewing Tartt’s very first novel from 2004. Chock-full of impossibly difficult questions to answer regarding murder, lies, and a secret that lives and breathes heavily on the shoulders of a circle of friends, The Secret History is the perfect introduction into Donna Tartt’s incredibly talented writing career.

Before you start thinking along the lines of “Oh wow, I love a close-knit group of friends, whatever they had to do to protect this secret thingy was for a good cause! Omg they probably did it for each other.”- let me correct you. They Secret History is home to a shit-ton of terrible people. The story is set in the 1980’s at a small private college in Vermont, where the pretentious graduate students and upper-class elitists run as rampant as the expensive liquor and cigarettes that fuel them. Really the only character with a conscience to his name is our narrator and protagonist Richard Papen, whom Daniel Radcliffe’s character in the 2013 film Kill Your Darlings is an almost exact reincarnation of. Richard is compassionate and highly intelligent, but stands out amongst the snobby PhD-hungry academics thanks to his humble roots in California, where he was accepted to the school for his brains rather than his money.

Aside from experimenting with drugs, sleepless nights and all the other things that encompass college, Richard’s most significant experiences in the story revolve around his acceptance into an elite group of five Greek scholars, who are all studying ancient Greek literature and classics. It takes a long time before Richard is considered an “official” member of the group, but he knows he is either in or out when he learns his friends’ terrible secret. They tell Richard about one night where they were attempting to recreate an ancient Bacchanalian ritual in the woods; and by accident in their drug-induced state, they killed the owner of the property who stumbled upon them in the process. Although he was not a part of the accident in the woods, Richard is aware of the fact that his knowledge of the incident alone makes him a partner in crime. A circle of trust is formed between the six friends to keep the secret, but it isn’t long before guilt and anxiety start causing problems.

It is around this time that the Greek students come around to the questions I asked you initially- how far are they willing to go to keep their secret safe? When one of the group can no longer keep his mouth closed, the students find their answer and even more blood is spilled- this time not by accident. My second experience with Donna Tartt’s work was once again an extremely vivid pleasure. Her attention to detail is always a mind-blowing experience; you learn to love certain characters and detest others thanks to all the tiny little pieces that make them up. If I had to choose between the two, I think that The Goldfinch is still her best work to date. However, like with music, my passion and respect for an author’s roots always makes their early works a savory experience for me, and The Secret History is a book with a secret worth spilling.

“I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.”

Thank you for reading what I have to say about books! This has been the summer of books that have been made into movies- and coming next Friday is a movie that I am particularly excited about. Swing by next week for my review of The Hundred-Foot Journey before you see the film!


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