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Updated by Stephen Perry on Dec 15, 2016
Headline for THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tart
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The Secret History


The Secret History is the story of 5 college students in a small Vermont college taking advanced classes in Classical Greek from a mysterious professor.

The professor, a man with a very strange and conflicted past, encourages them to experience life in all its Eleusinian mysteries, and, to engage in ancient rituals to help them truly understand the classical civilizations they are studying so intently.

These students, banding together constantly, take the professor’s advice to truly extreme measures. They end up, in a strange Dionysian ritual one very crazy evening, killing a Vermont farmer by mistake. Or, was it a mistake?

When one member of this group threatens to spill the beans on everyone, and turn them into the F.B.I, what happens next powers the narrative of this amazing story.

This is the first novel by Donna Tartt, a novel receiving much literary attention and praise. She then later astounded the literary world by publishing THE GOLDFINCH in 2013, a novel that later won the Pulitzer Prize.

Her novels have been called _Dickensian. _

As in the novels by Charles Dickens, the characters in THE SECRET HISTORY come alive on the page, and at the end of the book, you feel as though you really know them, as if they were living, breathing characters out of your own past, not just crumbly stick figures on dusty pages of ink and paper.

Dickensian, as used by literary scholars and critics, has come to mean, among other characteristics, “an acuity of social observation.”

And, social observation in this novel triumphs.

Social acuity is evident as the author describes the social class of each of the 5 students, and how their social standing motivates them and serves to inform their behavior.

She also describes, in hauntingly elegiacal terms, the small Vermont college, Hampden College, and the feel, the smells, the luxuriant landscapes of the warm Vermont earth in the Fall, and the collusion among this band of not so merry pranksters, who with their Professor, end up in a veritable Greek Tragedy of their own making.

In his review of The Secret History in 1992, the New York Times critic, Michiko Kakutani, said this:

“How best to describe Donna Tartt's enthralling first novel? Imagine the plot of Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment" crossed with the story of Euripides' "Bacchae" set against the backdrop of Bret Easton Ellis's "Rules of Attraction" and told in the elegant, ruminative voice of Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited."

The product, surprisingly enough, isn't a derivative jumble, but a remarkably powerful novel that seems sure to win a lengthy stay on the best-seller lists.

Ms. Tartt -- a Bennington classmate of Mr. Ellis and the novelist Jill Eisenstadt -- began "The Secret History" some eight years ago as a student, and the novel takes place at a small Vermont college in the 1980's. Its main characters, however, have less in common with most of their contemporaries than with the bright young things of England immortalized by Waugh and Nancy Mitford: the willful esthetes, dedicated to the ideals of beauty and art, who flocked around Harold Acton and Brian Howard at Oxford in the 1920's. They are glimpsed through the eyes of Ms. Tartt's narrator, Richard Papen, a scholarship student from California, who looks at his wealthy, snobbish schoolmates with a combination of envy, awe and an outsider's detachment.”

This will give you an idea of the literary star power of this amazing novel.

At 524 pages, this lengthy novel is most decidedly not for everyone.

But for those who can stick with it, this book, one of our 2016 AISC Book Orders, will deliver rewards far beyond what you can imagine. It has always been one of my very favorite novels, and has haunted me since 1996, the year I first read it. Every year I read it once again to plumb essential truths.

Her writing is mystical, beautiful, lyrical, transporting.

This Novel is shelved in our Fiction collection under the call number F TAR and is available for immediate checkout.