The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret HistoryLooking through our bookshelves in search of old favorites with great first lines has been a fun trip through my reading history.   I have a large stack of books waiting for future posts but today I want to feature the opening sentences of The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

Does such a thing as “the fatal flaw,” that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature?  I used to think it didn’t.  Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.”

The Secret History tells the story of a young man who found himself living in the middle of a terrible secret.  The theme of conflict between his quest for artistic beauty at all costs and facing the consequences of truth continues throughout the novel as Richard is repeatedly confronted with choices between continuing to embellish his background and acknowledging a reality that is not so beautiful or picturesque.  Goodreads posts a summary of the basic outline of the story without spoilers:

Richard Papen arrived at Hampden College in New England and was quickly seduced by an elite group of five students, all Greek scholars, all worldly, self-assured, and, at first glance, all highly unapproachable. As Richard is drawn into their inner circle, he learns a terrifying secret that binds them to one another…a secret about an incident in the woods in the dead of night where an ancient rite was brought to brutal life…and led to a gruesome death. And that was just the beginning….

Chapter one begins with Richard, a few years after his graduation, reflecting on the sequence of events that led to murder and tragedy within his group of friends.  Because this story is told as a murder mystery in reverse, a whydunit instead of a whodunit, some of the more bizarre and melodramatic moments seem almost believable and many reviews have noted the parallels between this story and classical Greek tragedies with fate dictating the circumstances set into motion by previous choices and emotions.   I think I am going to keep this book “off the shelf” for a re-read, 21 years later, and am curious to find if I enjoy the drama the same way now as it did then.  Will my older perspective and distance from college life lead me to a different view of students and young adults?  I would love to hear your reactions to this story and if anyone has comments to share from a re-read please let me know.

A few reviews:

“The Secret History succeeds magnificently. . . . A remarkably powerful
novel [and] a ferociously well-paced entertainment. . . . Forceful, cerebral,
and impeccably controlled.” –The New York Times

“An accomplished
psychological thriller. . . . Absolutely chilling. . . . Tartt has a stunning
command of the lyrical.” –The Village Voice

“A haunting,
compelling, and brilliant piece of fiction. . . . Packed with literary allusion
and told with a sophistication and texture that owes much more to the nineteenth
century than to the twentieth.” –The Times (London)

“Her writing
bewitches us. . . . The Secret History is a wonderfully beguiling book, a
journey backward to the fierce and heady friendships of our school days, when
all of us believed in our power to conjure up divinity and to be forgiven any
sin.” –The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Enthralling. . . . A remarkably
powerful novel [and] a ferociously well-paced entertainment. . . . Forceful,
cerebral, and impeccably controlled.” –The New York Times Book

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12 thoughts on “The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  1. Funny to see this post because I’ve written a similar one for Monday based on my rereading of a Stephen King novel. Great minds, I guess. I’ve never read The Secret History. Maybe I should. 🙂


  2. I haven’t thought about this book in years, either! I do recall the sense of captivation, horror and intrigue my “first read” elicited though. To the notion of reading again with a new perspective, I’ve done that with a few books over the years, the one I am thinking of now is The Sun Also Rises. The first time I read it I was 18 and I was simply dazzled by the glamor of it all. I read it again in my late 20s and found myself drawn in by the social interactions , and found my earlier impressions of glamor to be “off-base.” I read it one last time in my late 30s, and my reaction was this: “What immaturity! They were all selfish brats who made their own beds.” I don’t think I’ll read it again as I approach late 40s (not there yet, though, so who really knows?”). In a way, I find my changing reflections fascinating and fun, but in a way I almost wish I hadn’t done it. My first reaction was the best – I loved it! It captivated me and it felt magical in the way the book transported me from my reality to a distant world impossible for me to imagine as my own. It was a little sad to have that magical impression deflated by my mid-life reality check.


    1. Erica, what a great point! We want to re-read old favorites to recapture the feelings of our first read but new life experiences color the second readings and you’re right I don’t want the magical impressions deflated by mid-life realities. 🙂 I am thinking about picking up Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude again but now I might wait a little longer…


      1. Now those two G.G. Marquez books might actually be interesting to try again, Lisa! I recall struggling a little with the narrative thread in those when I read them (was it early college? I can’t quite recall), but loving them still, nonetheless. I wonder what the mystical qualities might “read” like now, in my more mature (ahem! or should I say, no longer adolescent?) perspective? The one I’ve been thinking about reading again is The Handmaiden’s Tale – a grim story, I know, but I am curious. When I chat about Margret Atwood with others, I find people surprised to learn that I read it in high school. I do wonder what my impression might be now, now that I have a better understanding of the gravity of her point with that book? Or would it come across as trite? I just don’t know. I may have to try it.


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