Posted by: Gregg | December 3, 2008

There’s an entry in my Google Docs folders that’s been sitting there for a bout five months entitled “The Secret History – Donna Tartt.” I’ve written and re-written the thing into incomprehensibility and I’ve finally thrown up my hands and said uncle. The Secret History isn’t an unreviewable book, by any means – it’s just that I can’t quite wrap my head around what I want to say about it.

I’ll give you an example. Back in 2000 I saw the Sam Mendes film “American Beauty.” I was finishing up my undergrad at UMKC and took myself to a well-reviewed movie to celebrate. I was so struck by the film that after the film ended and the lights went up, I simply could not talk. I was certainly capable of speech, but the movie was still rolling around in my mind and I was sifting through characters and scenes and all the rest and I just didn’t want to talk to anyone about it, as if opening my mouth and being forced to define my thoughts would somehow cheapen the experience I got from watching it.

Tartt’s Secret History is the same sort of thing. It’s an amazing, jaw-dropping read about a scholar from a working-class family who goes to an exclusive New England university and falls in with a group of Greek scholars and their mysterous professor. Two murders happen in the course of the book – one solidifies the group of friends, and the other splits them apart. I can’t really tell you anything other than that, just that if you haven’t read it already, drop everything and run to your local library.

It’s also affected my Pantheon list. To explain briefly, over at my Goodreads site I have a list of novels that go beyond mere five stars – they belong in the Bookpusher Pantheon; desert island books. Last year I ranted, raved, and frothed to anyone who would listen about how wonderful Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics was. It immediately went into the Pantheon. After reading Secret History, I now realize that Special Topics cribbed from it; not that I’m accusing Pessl of ripping anything off, it’s just that both novels are similar in scope and style and tried to accomplish similar things.

So Special Topics got benched. First time for that. Now: off with you. Go read.


  1. I myself have just finished “Secret History”, and I must confess my reaction to it was far different from yours. The whole novel consists of “sound bites” that simply don’t connect except as elements to drive the plot.

    For example, the idea of a “Bacchanalian” is advanced to justify one murder, and is set up in some detail in the first half of the book. After it has served its purpose, the concept is abandoned as the book disappears into a sordid world of FBI agents, drug-taking, incompetance and standard Hollyword morality paybacks.

    I read this book because I enjoyed Calamity Physics so very much. Marisha Pessl’s effort still seems to be to be the superior read.

  2. You should read The Likeness by Tana French, if you haven’t already. It reminded me a great deal of The Secret History and Special Topics…and I liked it better than both of those.

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