In the ‘before-times’, one of the last novels I read from start-to-finish in a bar was Donna Tartt’s THE GOLDFINCH. It was the first novel of hers I’d read — practice for a film I’d never bother watching — and the bartender/manager/owner of said bar asked me: ‘Have you read THE SECRET HISTORY?’, which I vaguely knew as Tartt’s first novel. I responded that I had not. He solely replied: ‘You should read it,’ then walked away with an aloofness which stunned me, one that I would have found offensive if it weren’t for a specific lilt in his voice.
I had really, sincerely, stupidly, hoped that I’d be able to read it at his bar — it’s Burke’s Public House; if you’re ever in the Chicago Uptown area, they are still open, and they have great burgers — but no. COVID-19 intervened, obviously. Instead, I idly read the bulk of it at a generic suburban resort, far away from home, in a starchy, itchy bed.
THE SECRET HISTORY is a astonishingly beloved novel, one of found families, and it revels in nuanced academia of the Ancient Greek sort but, at the heart of it, it’s a Hitchcock-ian tale of power dynamics while also being a cautionary story about when everything goes sour in the most platonic of relationships, when one trusts too much in others without fully realizing the implications of doing so.
The details of THE SECRET HISTORY are rather difficult to discuss, precisely because the novel is the slowest of slow-burns, luxuriating in setting and character before finally diving into the details of its inciting incident, but I’ll summarize it as so: Richard, an indecisive, lower-middle-class Californian dude from Plano* changes majors several times before moving to a very liberal, fictitious, Vermont college in a made-up town, and throws his all into a group of well-off Classics intellectuals: Henry, the fountainhead of the group, brilliant but has a specific disassociation from humanity; Bunny, a dyslexic but charismatic individual that comes from privilege but isn’t given a cent and relies on his charm to live; Charles and Camilla, lithe fraternal twins who live together; Frances, mostly queer and moneyed; and Julian, the Ancient Greek professor who doesn’t need to teach to pay the bills, allowing him to be extraordinarily selective about the students he enlists, the students of whom murder Bunny.
THE SECRET HISTORY also scrutinizes Vermont, where I grew up, but it is firmly positioned in Central Vermont and, despite the fact that you can drive vertically through the state in under four hours — less than two horizontally — Vermont is surprisingly fragmented. There’s Northern Vermont which was — when I lived there, many moons ago — very upper-middle-class in a basic way. Families of engineers and the like. Southern Vermont I mostly knew as Bennington, specifically Bennington College, which isn’t nearly as illustrious now, but in its heyday it was all David Mamet and Shirley Jackson (who, admittedly, didn’t attend or teach there, but her husband did, and her spirit still looms large, and directly inspired THE SECRET HISTORY via her novel HANGSAMAN — about a woman finding herself at a liberal college — and perhaps her under-published short story THE MISSING GIRL).
Central Vermont though, well, there’s not much there apart from struggling farming boroughs, and the well-meaning capital of the state, Montpelier. It’s a mess; it’s always been that way, at least to me.
Tartt is a Southern American — from Mississipi — but attended Bennington College, along with other novelists like Bret Easton Ellis (of whom she partially dedicated this novel to). However, THE SECRET HISTORY is placed in Central Vermont, a nebulous place out-of-time that houses this group of (mostly) over-privileged Classics scholars who feel similarly displaced.
Consequently, THE SECRET HISTORY is a small-scale tale told in an epic way, and I’m gobsmacked that it’s never been adapted into a film, as in many ways, it suits that medium more than a novel. Conversely, Tartt’s latest, THE GOLDFINCH, which was adapted into a film, feels ill-suited to cinema, due to its severe interiority and reliance on static imagery, as opposed to HISTORY’s language and cadence and bold personalities.
(For more info on why a film adaptation of THE SECRET HISTORY stalled, see: https://www.townandcountrymag.com/leisure/arts-and-culture/a28954524/donna-tartt-secret-history-movie/ )
- Coincidentally, I saw an experimental theater production that took place in Plano — and was named Plano — three days before lockdown.