The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I just had to blog about this book to continue the Donna Tartt fest.  I first read this book back in 1995, a couple of years after graduating with a degree in classical Greek studies.  At that time my friends who had also majored in Classics were still around in town and one of them gave me this book saying “You have to read this book, you won’t be able to put it down.”  His prediction was right — so right that when he called me the next day I told him I would have to call him back when I had finished the book, because I was hooked and had to find out what happened.  Only that’s a strange thing to say about this book, because you find out “what happened” in the prologue.  Secret_history Someone named Bunny has been dead for several weeks, his body buried underneath the now melting snow, and his body is about to be found.  You even find out quite a bit about who killed Bunny from the narrator who was apparently involved in the murder.  It’s all laid out for you in plain view, the end of the story right there in the prologue.  Then the first chapter begins at the beginning of the story.  The narrator, Richard Papen, is a student new to a small college in New England.  He, fatefully, comes upon a tight-knit group of students studying classical Greek; and, having studied Greek before, he gets the opportunity to join their exclusive class.  As he gets to know them better, he finds out things about them he probably wishes he’d never learned.  And as events unfold further, he stumbles into something so shocking, unimaginable, and so taboo that you can’t stop yourself from reading what you can’t believe you’re reading. 

When I picked this book up again recently, ten years later, after much of my classical studies knowledge had faded somewhat  — okay …  a lot —  I was still just as intrigued and drawn in by the plot.  The one thing I noticed now that I didn’t back then is that Tartt puts a lot of foreign language phrases within the text without defining them, but that only makes the characters and the context within which they live more believable.  True, it was easier for me the first time reading it because I had my ancient Greek fresher in my brain, but the foreign phrases are not as important as the plot.  For the occasions when the meaning of the foreign phrase is necessary to the plot, Tartt handles it like: so and so said such and such in Greek (or French or Latin, etc.).  Other than that one quirk, this book is a fast read, the pace quickens, and your heart races, as you get closer and closer to the shocking truth and tragedy of it all.  And when you finish it, you’re left a little stunned and haunted. 

(Heidi Schachtschneider Cary, Information Services)

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