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
Review