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Frank's Book Log

Literature is a relative term.

The Secret History

1992 | Novel
A cover of The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992)
A: 5 stars (out of 5)
on Jul 02, 2022

Richard and his friends have killed Edmond “Bunny” Corcoran. This is no spoiler, it’s page one. A reverse mystery, Richard recounts how he came to Hampden, a small New England College. How he gained entry to an exclusive classics program centered on ancient Greece led by a charismatic, yet mysterious professor and comprising just five other students, one of them Bunny. As Richard’s story unfolds, the circumstances around the murder, its cover-up, and aftermath emerge.

I can’t remember a book I’ve wanted to restart so soon after finishing. Tartt conjures such an immersive, inviting world that just existing in it for the book’s duration proves pleasure in itself. Hampden, based on Bennington College, where Tartt and Brett Easton Ellis were classmates, proves an idyllic setting. Small enough that everyone knows everyone, yet large enough to harbor secrets. Old enough to feature ivy-covered buildings, yet new enough to harbor liberal policies around curriculum and professorial ethics. It’s not real, but like the best imagined worlds, feels like it could be.

This extends to the characters. The core group of college kids often act as middle-aged men. They dress in fine clothes, answer the door in robes, drink whiskey and scotch, speak Greek as code, and argue over translations and usage. Not realistic, and yet, upon finishing the story, I missed them. I suspect every reader will have their favorite. Mine was Henry.

And then there’s the sole “grown up,” professor cum father figure, Julian, who proves aloof yet magnetic. As though through his study of the classics, he’s attained a rarefied level of sophistication and insight. Tartt threads the needle between caricature and character, messiah and fraud. I ended the book with a sense of Julian’s true nature, yet still felt drawn to him.

The closest I can remember to such an experience—and this proves a poor analogy—is reading Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat as a teenager. Another aesthetic world full of erudite personalities with an undercurrent of primal violence. My teenage self loved it. So it brings terrific joy to discover another such experience at middle age.

Tartt’s narration at first proved challenging. Richard is a boy from California and thus wouldn’t have Tartt’s voice or Mississippi drawl. But I powered through and enjoyed Tartt’s intonation of distinct voices that wouldn’t have come through on the printed page, like Bunny’s (“W. C. Fields with a bad case of Long Island lockjaw”) and Julian’s (a whispered high rising terminal, as though every word were a revelation).

And I suspect there’s something of Tartt in Richard. He’s the outsider coming into this world, as Tartt was when she transferred to Bennington. Hearing her read the story lends a subtle authenticity and gravitas.

Perhaps my next reading will be in print. But I doubt it. I want this experience again, and won’t chance altering details.

Reading History

    Sat Jul 02, 2022 via Audible (Read by Donna Tartt)
    Listened to over 8 Days
    1. 25 Jun, 2022
    2. 26 Jun, 2022
    3. 27 Jun, 2022
    4. 30 Jun, 2022
    5. 02 Jul, 2022