Dona Tartt, The Secret History (1992)

I can safely say that without the podcast Once Upon a Time at Bennington College, I would not have read this novel and I would have missed out on a great read. Would I have enjoyed it as much without the podcast? Surely not. It is also entirely possible that the story of a group of snobbish students in classical studies, inspired by a morally dubious, equally snobbish professor, might have made me roll my eyes.

Equipped with the back story on the university years of Donna Tartt, Bret Easton Ellis and others during the 1980s at an exclusive university campus in Vermont, where eccentricities were the norm, I feel closer to the book and its intentions. I understand better the parallels with Brideshead Revisited which fascinated some students at the time (I haven’t read the novel, and Mr S. claims I have seen the movie version with him but frankly I have no recollection whatsoever 🙄). The podcast draws parallels between fictional characters and real students of Tartt’s class at Bennington, but it takes us readers only so far because we don’t know them, but it serves to highlight the peculiar, decadent and slightly pernicious atmosphere on campus (which might have fostered creativity for some, but didn’t go well in the 1990s when one could say relations between students and professors were normalized).

Now, is it the best novel ever as some claim on Goodreads? I don’t think so, although I understand the appeal for younger readers because of the dark charm of the campus novel with brilliant minds where not all is at it seems (see the recent trend of #darkacademia). It could easily be edited down, and sometimes it comes out as pompous with not much substance behind it (the evil influence of Professor Julian Morrow is alluded to, but he’s so barely present along the novel that one might wonder if it isn’t yet another lie). It’s interesting to compare and contrast with The Prime of Miss Brodie where the teacher is front and center (I feel that I should reread it). Also I was a bit disappointed that Camilla, Francis and Charles weren’t as developed as they could be, given the size of the book, but of course it can also be blamed on the unreliable, selfish narrator.

Let’s not deny that it was a great entertainment and lots of fun! Yes it’s big but after 100 pages or so I simply could not put it down and the pages flew by. Now, should I read Brideshead Revisited or investigate this #darkacademia trend? Or should I try the other Donna Tartt’s bestseller, The Goldfinch? Any recommendations?

6 thoughts on “Dona Tartt, The Secret History (1992)

  1. Brideshead is uneven but worth a read. I gave it four stars. Yes absolutely read The Goldfinch! I loved it, more than Secret History. In fact, I want to reread it. Now you’re making me want to pick it up again before the year ends!

  2. I enjoyed this a lot and found it surprisingly propulsive considering how pompous and selfish the narrator was. Every time I read it, I find myself totally unable to put it down! I may be due for a reread, come to think of it.

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