In the Cut’s recurring books column, Shelf Improvement, we delve deep into our bookshelves to find recommendations that never go out of style.
Whenever someone asks me to recommend a book, I always start with the same question: Have you read The Secret History? A lot of people have — the book has been translated into 24 languages and sold over 5 million copies since 1992 — but for those lucky souls who have not yet been initiated into the cult of Donna Tartt, there’s never a bad time to get started.
The Secret History is my personal Platonic ideal of what a novel should be, and since I first read it back in the heady days of junior high, I have spent my entire reading life attempting to find similar versions of it. It is the urtext of what I now consider to be my favorite genre — namely, wealthy students at elite colleges exploring sex and murder through classic literature. It is, as the inside book jacket of my battered paperback proclaims, “the thinking person’s thriller.”
The first book by Donna Tartt (who would go on to write The Little Friend and The Goldfinch), The Secret History follows a group of wealthy students at a liberal-arts college in 1980s Vermont, who study ancient Greek under the tutelage of a classics professor named Julian Morrow, an enigmatic eccentric who begins his classes with lines like, “I hope we’re all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime.” Our narrator is the Nick Carraway–esque everyman Richard Papen, a working-class California boy afflicted by a tragic flaw: “a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.” Richard arrives at the school on a scholarship, and immediately becomes enthralled by the sophistication and seemingly limitless disposable income of his classmates, fabricating a more glamorous past for himself in order to fit into their clique. The rest of the gang are Henry Winter, an aloof genius who translates Milton into Latin in his spare time; Camilla and Charles MacCauley, a pair of beautiful blonde orphan twins with a dark secret; Francis Abernathy (did I mention how good the names in this book are?), a scarf-wearing socialite; and Bunny Corcoran (!!!), a rosy-cheeked New England good ol’ boy prone to borrowing immense sums of money and getting under his classmates’ skin.
“As different as they all were 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,” Tartt writes. “They were magnificent creatures.” (Step aside, Chuck and Blair!) From the first time Richard spies this oddball crew on campus, the characters are so richly drawn and so idiosyncratically compelling, that, despite widely being believed to be adaptation-proof, I have been casting the prestige-TV version in my mind for over a decade now. (While I used to see Camilla as more of an Amanda Seyfried, I’m now convinced it was the role Elle Fanning was born to play.)
And then, of course, everyone starts breaking bad. Under Julian’s charismatic influence, the group increasingly cuts themselves off from the rest of campus, forming their own little secret society replete with rules and rituals, inspired by the ancient Greek texts they study. Particularly, they become obsessed with Julian’s recounting of the Dionysian bacchanal — the orgiastic, hedonistic, drug-fueled rituals resulting in the dissolution of the ego — that the Greeks used to participate in, and his proclamations that “beauty is terror” and “if we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones, then spit us out reborn.” Cool!
As a young reader, I was pretty convinced by this, and turns out Julian’s students were, too; the gang ends up successfully performing a Bacchanalian rite, successfully shedding their rational minds and dancing with Dionysus as wolves howl and the river runs white around them. The only problem: They accidentally murder someone in the process, and then decide to kill one of their own group as part of the cover-up. This leads to the gang’s collective unraveling, as investigators close in and they begin to shatter under the psychological weight of what they have done.
Reading The Secret History for the first time — as an impressionable tween who dreamed of ivy-covered colleges filled with worldly geniuses who could quote Homer over dirty Martinis — Tartt’s book was like an intellectual gateway drug, a shot of adrenaline for the mind. (I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of readers started enrolling in classics programs after reading it, because I almost did.) Rereading it now, The Secret History captures the fantasy of intellectual activity at its most satisfying. It takes me back to those moments of university when, if I managed to actually stop procrastinating and make it to the library, I would be poring over some ancient text and suddenly feel a proximity to the great mysteries of human existence, a proximity that made me feel that much more alive — even if I never quite made it to any midnight orgies.
Tartt’s greatest gift is how she brings us wholly into the psychological and intellectual world of our characters, so we never scoff at the idea that a group of young scholars might be compelled to commit murder because they got too into their Classics homework. The gang’s horrific crime — and their subsequent inexorable decline, which feels as inevitable as a Greek tragedy — never feels silly or contrived but entirely plausible. Add to that murder, incest, betrayal, twenty-something angst, copious substance abuse, and aspirational rich-person lifestyle porn on par with Prep and Gossip Girl, and you’ve got the ultimate beach, or library, or really-just-about-anywhere read.
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