The Secret History by Donna Tartt is a story of privilege and everything that comes with it. The book follows Richard Papen, a teenager who wins a place at the elite Hampden College in Vermont, and his friendship with the group of students he encounters there.
The book is a twist on a classic murder mystery. The opening chapter begins with Richard and his group of friends mulling over the crime they have committed by murdering one of their peers, and Richard reflecting on the path that led him to that moment. There is no mystery over Richard’s involvement with the crime, so the book works more as a study of how he reached that point and how things will progress from there.
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 follows Richard as he attempts to leave his dull, lower class family life behind him and enter the world of elite academia via his acceptance to Hampden. He has a dreadful fear of becoming like his parents, and instead ends up becoming like the strange group of friends he makes – people with so much money and privilege that they feel driven to operate at another level and inhabit a world of archetypes and classical mythology. It’s a study of academia and its applicability in a practical world, the effects of money, the drives that fuel our actions no matter where we fall on the social scale.
Interestingly, the book’s biggest flaws are also its potential strengths. If you are captivated by these characters, you will enjoy both the study of their personalities and the heightening tension as their reckoning draws ever closer. But if you are bored by rich teenagers and the problems caused by their youth and privilege, it’s likely you will be left cold by their exploits. However there is no doubt that this book is very well written; Donna Tartt is a masterful storyteller, and the plot unfolds with precision and skill, so I think that no matter your attitude towards wealthy young people, you will enjoy the journey.
© 2020 Nic James
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Nic James thinks too much and always talks over movies.