My introduction to the writing of Donna Tartt came late. It began with The Goldfinch - a Dickensian suspense novel whose characters, for all their frailties, remain sympathetic and identifiable. The Goldfinch is her third and most recent book. The Secret History, the author's first novel, was published twenty years ago. Donna Tartt was only 28 years old at the time of publication.
From the prologue, the reader is made aware of a murder - a premeditated murder by five college friends. The ensuing 524 pages are an exploration of why the murder occurred and its psychological aftermath.
Our narrator, Richard Papen, is one of six classics students who form a tightly knit group at a small, East Coast college. Of the six, Richard is the outsider - the poor kid from a family without means and lacking respect for higher education. Thus Richard seeks to reinvent himself. At college, he ingratiates himself into the wealthy and elite group of classics students taught by the enigmatic Julian.
The six students, each fully actualized in the book, and Julian, the erudite muse, do not mingle with others on campus. They study only Greek and read untranslated classics. Estranged as they are from their families and the world at large, they start living outside its moral boundaries.
As Richard reflects:
Religious slurs, temper tantrums, insults, coercion, debt: all petty things, really, irritants - too minor, it would seem, to move five reasonable people to murder. But if I dare say it, it wasn't until I had helped to kill a man that I realized how elusive and complex an act a murder can actually be, and not necessarily attributable to one dramatic motive. (p. 215)
The Secret History is far more than a murder mystery. It exposes the accesses of academia and the "intellectual life" while exploring the depths of individual remorse.
If you liked The Goldfinch - or even if you did not - you will want to read this book. Donna Tartt gives us a glimpse into the rarefied world of the upper classes and its privileged youth. She proves, once again, that morality is not so flexible and all is not what it seems.
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