December 09, 2009


I’ve been terribly neglectful lately in writing about the books I’ve read right after I finish them, so sadly this discussion of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History may suffer a bit. I finished the book weeks ago and, while I loved it, it is no longer fresh in my mind and so I may be a bit lacking in my remembering of it. Alas, I will do my best.

I came upon The Secret History when a friend and I were talking about The Likeness. She said that as she was reading Tana French’s book, she was reminded of Donna Tartt’s novel. As I read reviews of The Likeness, I noticed many of them mentioned The Secret History, almost always in a favorable way (for both books). And then, when said friend gave me a copy of the book, I figured it was about time to read it. It is true that there are many (many) similarities between The Likeness and The Secret History; both are set at secluded academic locations, both feature a bizarrely close circle of friends, both involve a the murder of a student, et cetera et cetera. And yet, I did not find The Likeness to be a rehashing or copy of The Secret History (which came first – it was published, and apparently was very popular, in 1992).

The book opens with Richard Papen, our trusty protagonist, reflecting on his tumultuous time at Hampden College. As a sophomore transfer student, Richard was quickly accepted into an exclusive group of five friends. His need to belong, particularly to this elite group by which he is fascinated, moves him to make sure to fit in at any cost. Though he must work hard and often to put himself through school, he pretends to be of the same wealthy class of his new friends (though in some of these friends’ cases, it is more like used-to-be-wealthy class). Their collective wealth, with the leisure and freedom (especially academic) it brings, makes their self-inflicted seclusion all the more influential on the developments of their philosophies. Hampden, the small liberal arts school at the foot of a mountain in Vermont, keeps its students isolated in a bubble of academics, drugs, and general college-revelry. These six students, however, are in their own tiny bubble within Hampden. They take only Classics course with each other, with only one professor. Entrenched in the Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, mythologies, epic poems, and dead languages, their worldview and mindset is entirely disconnected from modern reality. This disconnect – with its accompanying amorality and intellectual and social isolation – inevitably leads them towards irrevocable evil.

As these students are consumed by the Ancients in their mountainous Vermont isolation, their imagined world clashes with the real one. The bizarre recreation of an Ancient tradition leads them to an accidental (but no less horrific) murder. And yet, this is only the beginning; Richard’s story is really the story of he and his friends’ murder of Bunny, one of their own (worry not, no spoiler here – this murder is revealed on the first page). The horror of it is that as the book progresses, their actions begin to make sense. Bunny (who acts like a character from out of a Fitzgerald short story, both intentionally and not) has become a threat, not to mention a nuisance to his friends, and so he must be gotten rid of. In the warped minds of these students, this makes sense. As we become part of this mindset and their world – a world that is set more in Ancient Greece than in reality – the thought of murder seems less inhumane and more as an ordinary part of life. Bizarre events and elements of the book somehow seem reasonable, as Tartt has slowly eased us into this strange world where the natural and philosophical reign over the logical and corporeal. And yet, the students find that their otherworldly actions and beliefs have very real consequences.

As a sort of intellectual murder mystery that unfolds backwards, The Secret History kept me reading like crazy (into very late hours) to finish it. I loved so much about it: the quiet college setting, the complex and slowly unfolding relationships between characters, the structure of the story, the juxtaposition of the high intellectualism of Latin poetry and Greek philosophy with the basic animalistic act of murder. It is certainly one of those consuming books, one that you cannot put down and that appears in your dreams. At least, it was for me.


  1. I read this a few years back and didn't really get into it. Your review makes me think I should go back and revisit it. Sometimes when you read the right book at the wrong time, you miss something - maybe that's what happened to me with Secret History.

  2. Lianne!!! Where has this book been all my life? Ancient Greece + warped perceptions of reality + murder...just my cup of tea. Ironically, I took a Classics class last year and my professor structured the class around comparing Homer's epics to the Ancient Histories and then comparing both to modern reality. Luckily, nobody was murdered.

    This is definitely going on my to-read list. Great review as usual.

  3. Hi Lianne

    I can't find an email address for you, so please forgive me intruding on your comment wall. I’d like to invite you to write about your favorite books at, where you can add information, images, video, music and links to illustrate and explore the books.

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    Best wishes

    Hector Macdonald
    Editor, Book Drum