BRUNETTES ON BOOKS: ‘The Secret History’

Written by Kristi Murray & Rebecca Gasparoni.

When asked for a book suggestion, Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” immediately comes to mind. Since our first encounter with the novel in October of our sophomore year, we have revisited this story over and over again.

“The Secret History” is Donna Tartt’s first novel and was heavily influenced by her time at Bennington College where she attended for her undergraduate education alongside the notable writer Bret Easton Ellis.

The story follows Richard Papin, a student from California who transfers to Hampden College in upstate Vermont. We learn from the very first page that Richard and his friends have murdered a fellow member of their group, Bunny Corcoran. From the beginning of the novel, the book works backwards and unravels the events that led to the murder that took place on one cold Vermont afternoon.

A reason that this story is so profound is Tartt’s portrayal of Richard and his close friends. He enters Hampden College alone, but is slowly accepted into an elusive and exclusive group of students that solely study Greek. Their intense focus on their studies is ultimately what isolates them from the rest of the student body and makes them so interesting to Richard.

In many ways, the group dynamic is what propels the novel and the subsequent disintegration of morality. On one level, “The Secret History” is rooted in a setting that all of us are familiar with: a college campus. As a reader, you are immersed into everyday life on a campus, from classes to parties, but never too far from the dark tone that the murder places on the story.

Tartt studied Classics during her college years, and her knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology and history is deeply intertwined in the narrative. Though the setting of the novel is that of a small liberal arts school, the story follows character profiles and themes similar to those found in classical epics.

The main characters, though college students of now, seem to be from a different era as they are constantly quoting lines of Greek, Latin, and Italian. The characters feel strange and out of place in the novel but are strongly captivating and mysterious.

In the face of the murder, the strangeness of the characters becomes even more pronounced. The New York Times states: “Because Ms. Tartt’s characters are all such chilly customers, they do not so much lose their innocence as make a series of pragmatic, amoral decisions. As a result, real guilt and suffering do not occur in this novel; neither does redemption. The reader is simply left with a group portrait of the banality of evil.”

“The Secret History” is a story that will stay with you. Tartt is able to paint a poignant and strange depiction of a group of friends that slowly unravels and collapses. Tartt creates many scenes that are wrapped in description and are incredibly relatable even in the face of such a surreal and disturbing plotline.

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