Donna Tartt is an award-winning author from the United States of America. Her 2013 novel, The Goldfinch, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and has been adapted into a Hollywood film. The Secret History was her first novel. It is an inverted detective story set in New England. It explores the lives of a small yet tight-knit group of classics’ students and the tumultuous paths they embark upon, leading to the death of one of the group members.


I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.

The story is narrated by the protagonist, Richard Papen, a young academic unhappy with his life. He decides to find happiness by enrolling in an elite arts college in Vermont. There, he meets an intriguing group of rich intellectual students immersed in the study of Classical Greek. Papen at once decides to pursue the same. He becomes part of the group by lying about his modest background. However, his previously dull life begins to unfurl – first into something aesthetic and romantic, and then into a deeply convoluted life verging on the maniacal. Being an inverted detective story, The Secret History begins with the death of one of the members of this group of friends. What follows, however, is an enrapturing tale of Pyrrhic victory.

One likes to think there’s something in it, that old platitude amor vincit omnia. But if I’ve learned one thing in my short sad life, it is that that particular platitude is a lie. Love doesn’t conquer everything. And whoever thinks it does is a fool.

Donna Tartt’s debut novel is truly a testament to the beauty of her prose. The story is amply loaded with beautiful quotations that leave a lasting mark on readers’ minds. Tartt has the unique ability to come up with lines that leave the readers with an inexplicable ache originating from the unexplored recesses of their hearts.

…it seems to me that psychology is only another word for what the ancients called fate.

The romantic setting of a college campus adorned with Victorian-era buildings and the passion of youth makes the reader either reminisce about their own college days or crave such a life of creative exploration. The narrative, which deals with the study of Greek mythology and philosophy, further adds to the intellectual flavor. A haven for all hellenophiles, The Secret History elaborately weaves together related themes from the stories of ancient Greece. The end result is an exceptional piece of murder-drama.

The Secret History elegantly resonates with every individual’s desire to belong to a place where they have longed to be. For instance, Richard had always yearned for a life of aesthetic value and perceptible privilege. Once he lands in such a setting, he dives deep into the pretentiousness needed to fit in. The story paints an exquisite picture of the life of the dedicated scholars of a niche subject and the fatalities of its extreme romanticization.

A crime novel with a languid place may seem inappropriate, but Tartt gorgeously blends the two. She deftly folds the ugly truths into the silk-like decadence of her characters.

There is nothing wrong with the love of Beauty. But Beauty – unless she is wed to something more meaningful – is always superficial.

Despite its exquisite prose, The Secret History gets too exhausting and jumbled to keep the reader engaged to the end. One may find themselves wishing for the story to end as the narrator drags it forward with his highfalutin group of friends. In fact, after a point, the plot stops arresting the readers’ attention. Some readers may even find it a bit too exaggerated in its intellectual ostentation. That said, this may have been done deliberately by the author to portray the outwardly porcelain lives of the privileged, which are filled with a festering emptiness. The characters come across as heavily flawed yet entirely unabashed regarding their grey moralities. At times, one cannot help feeling that the issues faced by the group could have been easily resolved by lesser dramatic means.

Ameya Rating:

All in all, The Secret History shines in its romantic portrayal of student life, not to mention the intricate beauty of its prose intermingled with philosophy. Its fluidity earns it a score of three stars out of a possible five. The analysis of beauty in the context of the story as well as through the lens of Greek mythology is a delight to behold. Yet a lagging plot and generally unlikable characters may be a bit of a drag. That said, even with all its flaws, this is one of those modern novels that will almost certainly go down as a twenty-first-century classic.

…now that you’re here

As you might know, Ameya runs on a purely non-profit basis. With no tangible products on offer, advertisements and donations are our only two sources of keeping this blog up and running. You could convey your support to us with something as little as $5 - that's less than what an average Starbucks would cost!