In the early 90s in a New England college town, Richard Papen steps on campus and finds himself irresistibly drawn to the five unapproachable, tightly knit students studying Greek in isolation from the rest of the university. Unable to deny the pull of their intrigue, Richard convinces their professor, Julian, to allow him to join the Classical studies major. Charles, Camilla, Francis, Bunny, and Henry accept him into their inner circle, but quickly the group’s activities take on a dark undertone that Richard can’t ignore.
It is challenging to be at all interested in literature and not know about Donna Tartt. Whether you have heard of her from her most recent Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch or if you are already a die-hard fan and have read all three of her novels, it is common knowledge that her books are discussed with great passion. Knowing this and knowing the good people of book Instagram, I couldn’t put it off any longer. I went to my favorite bookstore and bought The Secret History. Its bold spine and its alluring, mysterious cover were enough to make me start reading this 524 page tome immediately, despite not having the faintest idea of its premise. I have since read this book on the train, in the bathtub, while walking, and late into the night when I should have been sleeping.
Now, looking back at the novel, I can tell you that this book is something special. The prose is thoughtful, the story is well-paced, the characters have more depth than some of the actual humans I know in real life, and questions of ethics, elitism, wealth, scholarship, power, death, life, and friendship are posed openly and with room to explore the grey areas of each.
I’d like to start with the most compelling aspect of this story, which, to me, is the cast of characters and how they interact with one another. Our narrator, Richard, is the latest addition to the group and as a result never fully integrates. He both socializes with people outside Julian’s small classical study and he is brought into the intimate group within the class itself, yet he always seems to be standing just outside the door of both. This encourages the tone of mystery throughout the book. The original six students in the class each have their own nuances.
Just to scratch the surface, Henry forced me to confront the limitations of societal norms and the results of harnessing power and manipulation. Francis represents the realities of familial obligations and suppression of sexuality in the 90s. The twins are impacted constantly by the intersection of secrecy and intimacy, and Bunny embodies the darkness of jealousy. Finally, Julian. The student’s odd, but appealing professor acts as a god figure in The Secret History. His students look up to him as the pillar of knowledge and the ultimate example of surpassing the restrictions of life. The power he cultivates over his student’s lives is more at fault for the events that transpire than the characters are able to acknowledge.
On the less appealing side, The Secret History has a glaring lack of female representation. Much like the classical Greek societies, men have depth, power, moral failings, and intellect in this story. The women have decidedly less dimensions. Bunny’s girlfriend, Marion, is portrayed as a nagging wife figure; Camilla, for the first half of the novel, is the beautiful, angelic token female; Judy Poovey is the sexually-inclined party girl who is often employed to move along the plot; Bunny’s mother is vapid, WASPy, and pill popping. I loved this book regardless, but I would have liked a pointedly un-classical approach to femininity.
Finally, I want to hit on the structure and the setting of this novel. Nostalgic and idealized in so many ways, Hampden College and Francis’ country home created the most interesting setting for this noir, wasted-youth story. The campus, the annex where the students had class, the wooded respite in the country, and the hotel rooms wrap a reader up so thoroughly in the story and it couldn’t have been executed better, in my opinion. Donna Tartt spent eight years writing this novel and the evidence of this comes through in the world she has built in Vermont. The structure of the novel itself builds on anticipation, rather than surprise, and by giving us a taste of the murder that is to come in the first chapter, we spend the rest of the novel racing to the conclusion.
Overall? I fully and completely entered the dark, nostalgic world of Hampden College, I lost sight of morality, of ethics, and of reality as I entertained suspicion, anticipated death, and empathized with each character, and I fell in love with this magnificent exploration of human behavior.
PUBLICATION DETAILS: Knopf Publishing Group, 9780679410324, 544pp. September 5, 1992. Fiction -> Literary Fiction. Psychological Thriller.
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