The Secret History weaves an unbelievable, yet surprisingly believable, tale of a group of undergraduate students, bound together by their knowledge and interest of Greek language and literature, their unflinching self-superiority, and later, the murder of one of their own.
Even though the crime is revealed in the prologue, this is a mystery novel. On top of that, however, it is very much a tragedy – a Greek tragedy – from the start, and its brilliance smolders as we learn more and more about the whys rather than the hows.
Richard Papen is a transfer to Hampden College in Vermont, escaping the banality of his California life and his uninterested family. A Greek scholar, he is dismayed to learn that the only professor of Classical Studies has closed his courses to all but a few hand-selected students.
Soon, however, Richard slowly works his way into their elite circle, at part by accident, but mostly due to the drive of his overwhelming curiosity. The group is small – only five students – but they intrigue and captivate Richard. Henry: brilliant and wealthy; Francis: closeted yet confident; the twins, Charles and Camilla: secretive; and the doomed Bunny: boisterous, with secrets of his own.
And there is the professor who brought them together – Julian – who they call by his first name (of course). A bit of a celebrity in the academic world as well as the “real” world, Julian seems to encourage his students to isolate themselves and push their studies and experiences to new heights. His character is one of the most important in the book, yet probably the least is known about him in the end.
The plot twists and turns as Richard is brought deeper into the confidences of the circle’s members, and we – along with him – slowly come to the realization that things have gotten really weird.
As I devoured this story, there were moments where I was completely transported to this small town in Vermont, sitting in class with the group, preparing dinner with them at the twins’ apartment, studying with Richard in his small dormitory room, and even drinking the weekend away at Francis’s aunt’s house in the country. Tartt is an exceptional writer to accomplish this at so many points throughout the novel.
The main reason that I selected this book – and was even aware of its existence – was because it was mentioned in a review of a second season episode of “True Blood.” Without those reviews (from the incomparable Jacob of Television Without Pity), I don’t know that I would have understood what was happening on that guilty pleasure of a show, and later, what was really happening in History.
I understand that The Secret History made quite a splash upon publication and it spent weeks and weeks on the best seller lists. It really is quite a feat for a first novel, and it is a major accomplishment. The only frustration I had was not with the content or the storyline – Tartt quotes ancient and modern texts at times, and they are not always translated into English. I enrolled in the bare minimum of required language courses (Spanish, hola!) to get out of college, so when I was unable to understand those quotes, I really wondered what I was missing – especially since Tartt rarely seemed to include passages in this novel that I would deem unnecessary.
All in all, a fantastic, satisfying read.