Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2014 for her novel The Goldfinch, which has been a customer favorite for as long as I’ve been working at the Bookshelf. But many literary critics, including nearly all of my friends who have read the book, were disappointed with it. This Washington Post review calls it “a pretentious mess of an art heist story” and compares it unfavorably with Tartt’s 1992 critical darling, The Secret History. I’ll admit that I haven’t read The Goldfinchmyself, but the justification that more than one of my friends among the literati proposed for the book’s Pulitzer win was that it was a very late conciliatory prize for The Secret History, which wasn’t even a finalist for the prize when it was published.
The Secret History, true to the theme of this column, is all about revisiting the classics. It centers on a group of Classics majors at a private liberal arts college in Vermont. We learn on the first page that the group has murdered one of their friends, Bunny Corcoran, but the first half of the novel is an exploration of why this murder takes place, and the novel and takes on the character of a Greek tragedy as it does so, reveling in the notions of fate and Dionysian frenzy that lead the protagonists to their inevitable choices.
When I first read the novel a couple years ago, I was struck by how familiar all of these characters—these murderers—appeared. They were me and my friends from college taken to a grotesque extreme that, given a different setting, I’m still not convinced we couldn’t have reached ourselves. What truly qualifies this book as a modern classic in my mind is the sheer intricacy of the book’s morality, forcing the reader to recognize what is truly good and then admit that they would rather have it otherwise. A scene of confession toward the end of the novel still gives me chills when I think about it, probably because my own role in the university has reversed: I am the teacher, but I’m still very young and acutely aware of what intelligent undergraduates are capable of within the social sandbox of a college campus.
The Secret History is beautiful and horrifying, and its characters will stay in your brain for years. You can find it on several of our Staff Picks shelves here at the store. If you pick it up (especially if you’re a fan of The Goldfinch), tell me what you think! Am I heaping it with undue praise, or is it really that much better than its younger sibling? One day when I get a chance to read The Goldfinch for myself, I’ll get to form my own opinion on it. Until then, I will continue to recommend The Secret History to any and everyone.