The Secret History: Book summary and reviews of The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History

by Donna Tartt

The Secret History
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  • Published in USA  Sep 1992
    524 pages
    Genre: Novels

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Book Summary

Truly deserving of the accolade a modern classic, Donna Tartt's novel is a remarkable achievement—both compelling and elegant, dramatic and playful.

Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and forever, and they discover how hard it can be to truly live and how easy it is to kill.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Tartt's much bruited first novel is a huge rambling story that is sometimes ponderous, sometimes highly entertaining. Part psychological thriller, part chronicle of debauched, wasted youth, it suffers from a basically improbable plot, a fault Tartt often redeems through the bravado of her execution. ... In the final analysis, however, readers may enjoy the pull of a mysterious, richly detailed story told by a talented writer." - Publishers Weekly

"This well-written first novel attempts to be several things: a psychological suspense thriller, a satire of collegiate mores and popular culture, and a philosophical bildungsroman.... Ultimately, it works best as a psychological thriller." - Library Journal

"The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too- long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods.... First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids- -while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's--and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal--and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie." - Kirkus

"Tartt's voice is unlike that of any of her contemporaries. Her beautiful language, intricate plotting, fascinating characters, and intellectual energy make her debut by far the most interesting work yet from her generation." - The Boston Globe

"A long tale of friendship, arrogance, and murder knit together with the finesse that many writers will never have ...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

"The great pleasure of the novel is the wonderful complexity and the remarkable skill with which this first novelist spins the tale. And a gruesome tale it is. ... A great, dense, disturbing story, wonderfully told." - Cosmopolitan

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Reader Reviews

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Cloggie Downunder

a compelling read
“…people never seemed to notice at first how big Henry was. Maybe it was because of his clothes, which were like one of those lame but curiously impenetrable disguises from a comic book (why does no one ever see that ‘bookish’ Clark Kent, without his glasses, is Superman?). Or maybe it was a question of his making people see. He had the far more remarkable talent of making himself invisible – in a room, in a car, a virtual ability to dematerialise at will – and perhaps this gift was only the converse of that one: the sudden concentration of his wandering molecules rendering his shadowy form solid, all at once, a metamorphosis startling the viewer.”

The Secret History is the first novel by American author, Donna Tartt. At the age of nineteen, Richard Papen goes to Hampden College in Vermont, primarily to get away from his parents and his depressingly boring hometown of Plano, CA. Having done two years of study in Ancient Greek, he jumps at the opportunity to join an exclusive class of five students studying The Classics under the very selective Julian Morrow.

Richard is somewhat dazzled by his fellow students: Henry Winter, dark-suited, stiff, aloof and extremely intelligent; Francis Abernathy, angular and elegant; the beautiful twins, Charles and Camilla Macaulay, and Bunny Corcoran, loud and cheery. Never does he dream that within a few months, one of their number will be dead.

At the centre of this book, both figuratively and literally, is a murder. The narrative is split into two: what led up to the murder, and the aftermath. The story is told by Richard some nine years after he went to Vermont. Tartt advances her story at a slow and careful pace; her characters, flawed and not necessarily appealing, develop as Richard gets to know them; her descriptive prose expertly evokes the atmosphere of the New England college.

So naturally do events lead into one another that the reader occasionally needs to step back and think: this is murder they are so matter-of-factly discussing. Black humour relieves the tension: the twins, upbraided for their failure to plan a meal, retort “Well, if you wake up intending to murder someone at two o’clock, you hardly think what you’re going to feed the corpse for dinner”.

As well as giving the reader plenty to think about (the value of life, self-preservation, friendship any loyalty), there is a plot with a few interesting turns and a quite unexpected climax. Tartt combines the story-telling talent of Stephen King with prose worthy of Wallace Stegner: the result is a compelling read that will stay with the reader long after the last page is turned.

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Author Information

Donna Tartt Author Biography

Photo: Beowulf Sheehan

Donna Tartt was born in 1963 in Greenwood, Mississippi. She was first published at the age of 13 in a Mississippi literary review. She enrolled in the University of Mississippi in 1981 where her writing caught the attention of writer Willie Morris. Based on his recommendation, she was admitted to a graduate short story course while still a freshman. At the suggestion of Morris and others she transferred to Bennington College in 1982, a private liberal arts college in Vermont.

She started writing what would become The Secret History in her second year at Bennington. It was published in 1992 and has since been published in 24 languages. Her second novel, The Little Friend, was published a decade later in 2002. Her third novel, The Goldfinch, is due to publish in Fall 2013, having ...

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