The Pocket Guide’s Retro Review: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History
While I am of the belief that there is no bad season for reading, the necessity of a good book is most profound in the winter months. When the cold bites at your skin and the sky darkens as you’re barely finishing lunch, there truly is no respite more appealing than a cozy nook with a wool blanket and something to read. So with December at the doorstep you’re likely mulling over which book to settle into next. May I suggest Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.
You may have heard the name Donna Tartt come up quite a bit over the past year. Her most recent novel, The Goldfinch, has been a critical darling and was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It can, however, be a polarizing work, with even its most ardent devotees caveating that there are (long) portions that drag. This, however, is not a problem faced by The Secret History, Tartt’s 1992 debut novel.
Set at a snowy New England liberal arts college, the story follows Richard Papen, a blue-collar Californian adrift in in the cold foreignness of the East Coast. When Richard falls in with a group of eccentric students and their charismatic classics professor, he finds himself engulfed in a world of privilege, excess and ultimately murder.
At its heart, The Secret History is a fast-paced suspense novel wrapped in perfectly restrained prose. Murder and complicity are themes laid out from the onset, but they are frequently buried beneath highbrow questions of culture and morality.
This notion of quiet and devastating evil coursing just below the surface of values like education and beauty flows through the entirety of the novel, from its themes and references to the very core of its central characters.
It’s a page-turner, for certain, but one that also serves as a refresher for all the Philosophy classes you took in college (as well as some of the post-exam parties you’d rather forget).
For all this praise, you may still wonder why I am choosing to recommend a book that came out over two decades ago. Well, part of Tartt’s objective in The Secret History is to capture a sense of timelessness. Her characters don’t quite fit into the world that she’s created for them. Tartt writes that, “…they shared a certain coolness, a cruel, mannered charm which was not modern in the least but had a strange cold breath of the ancient world…” It is the very fact that its central characters are out of place in their own era that helps The Secret History stand the test of time so well.
So while you’re feeling the lure of warm fires and blankets so heavy you lose feeling in your feet, take the time to curl up with this exceptional novel that feels far shorter than its 500 pages.