The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I have a secret fondness for books set in Ivy League environments, probably because there is something so romantically removed and ivory-tower-academia about them. Two other books that I love and which are set in these same environments are A Discovery of Witches and Ninth House, both of which I’ve previously blogged. Donna Tartt, whose masterpiece The Goldfinch (which I have also blogged about) is an absolutely magical writer who creates worlds that are seemingly calm on the surface and yet whose characters’ inner lives are as full of chaos and emotion as any hurricane. Or in this case, snowstorm. She most certainly does that with this book.

The Secret History is told from the viewpoint of Richard Papen, a poverty-stricken undergraduate student who becomes involved with an academically elite group of five other students during his time at Hampden College. Their very intellectual and superficially charming professor Julian instructs them in the classics of Greek literature, philosophy and thought, as well as the rituals and morals that went along with that ancient mindset. In pursuit of the classical Greek rites of the god Dionysus, which include mind-altering substances, wild sexual rites and an abandonment of the senses and the mind, Richard’s classmates Henry, Francis and twin siblings Charles and Camilla accidentally kill a local farmer when they are pursuing a bacchanalian type of mental state. Bunny, the fifth of the group, later finds out and cannot deal with either the reality that his friends are technically killers or his own knowledge of the murder, and is ultimately pushed from a cliffside to his death by Henry. The book opens with Bunny’s murder, and the remainder of the story deals with how Richard came to know them all, how his own involvement with the group and knowledge of the murder underscores his ultimate solitude, and the elusive nature of beauty, philosophy, death, and love.

I think what is so wonderful about this book is not so much that Richard is the classic unreliable narrator, it’s that he himself realizes his own unreliability as the story progresses. The way he remembers his friends – Julian as the good-hearted, fatherly professor who cares so much for the students and their education that he insists on a remarkable level of isolation in their studies; Henry as the haughty, intellectual linguist who is seemingly untouchable and untouched in his essential coldness; Camilla as the quietly beautiful brainiac whom Richard loves; Charles as the “kindly, ethereal soul”; Francis with his vast inheritance, vanity of spirit and confused sexuality; and of course, poor doomed Bunny whose murder opens the book and whose essential badness is given as reason for his death.

Until of course, all of these preconceptions and perceptions are turned on their heads. Julian arguably incites the Dionysian rites and the inadvertent murder of the farmer and has no trouble turning his back on the students when he learns of Bunny’s murder and the possibility it might smear his reputation. Henry has depths of emotion that are only seen toward the end when his guilt over Bunny’s death and his love for Camilla (and hatred for Charles and their incestuous relationship) manifests in some very nasty behavior. Camilla is a master manipulator, twisting Richard’s feelings for her as well as taking full advantage of Henry’s feelings for her to extract her from the brother-sister affair she and Charles are engaged in. Francis is, at heart, terribly insecure in his own self and his outward facade. Charles, as it turns out, is more than capable of letting out his ugly, nasty side when he is thwarted by Henry and Camilla. And Bunny, poor doomed Bunny turns out to have the only true conscience among the four of them about killing the farmer and this knowledge and inability to process it are what ultimately make the rest of them turn on him…….not out of their own guilt but to essentially shut Bunny up.

The way Tartt writes is like a river flowing, with images and concepts of philosophy, death, evil and life itself on full display. She takes what is ostensibly the most banal of ideas – college life – and turns it into a treatise on the meaning of beauty, permanence and immorality, and you cannot stop reading. I started it last Monday afternoon and read straight through until Tuesday morning. This book is totally immersive. I was very sad when I turned the last page because I truly felt I was in this world of snowy campuses, stuffy classrooms, bacchanalian college parties, intellectual discussions, decadent meals, and most importantly, I related to these characters. I understood why they felt they needed to kill Bunny. I understood why they first were drawn to each other and why they ultimately turned on and away from one another.

Julian is arguably one of the most fascinating characters in the book, outside of Richard. (But I have a weakness for a good unreliable narrator so of course I quite enjoyed dissecting Richard.) His facade of fatherly intellect, his instinct for putting forward a loving and caring face when in reality he is completely removed from his students’ lives other than grooming them in his own image. I do believe that he knew about, and even approved of, the farmer’s murder. He is, after all, the one who incites the students to host the Dionysian ritual, in which a frenzy of drugs, sex and violence are on full display. His hypocrisy when he learns of the group’s murder of Bunny is not the first hint of his true nature; and in fact, this passage is both where I was inspired to cook today’s food post but also where I first saw him as the puppetmaster of these six young, isolated students. Henry, in planning Bunny’s murder, has taken to testing out poisoned mushrooms and even talking at length with Julian about how the ancient Greeks used mushrooms to kill their enemies. When Julian invites Richard to a delectable lunch and makes it known that he is aware of the mushrooms, I’d say that’s pretty telling, wouldn’t you?

There was roasted lamb, new potatoes, peas with leeks and fennel; and an almost maddeningly delicious bottle of Chateau Latour. I was eating with better appetite than I had had in ages when I noticed that a fourth course had appeared, with unobtrusive magic, at my elbow: mushrooms. They were pale and slender-stemmed, of a type I had seen before, steaming in a red wine sauce that smelled of coriander and rue. “Where did you get these?” I said. “Ah. You’re quite observant,” he said, pleased. “Aren’t they marvelous? Henry brought them to me.”

Richard eats quite a lot of lamb throughout the book, perhaps symbolic of his being the potential sacrificial lamb upon whom Henry may later hang Bunny’s murder upon, so I decided that some lamb chops cooked in a mushroom and red wine sauce sounded excellent. I served them with buttery polenta on a bed of arugula.

6 lamb rib chops
5 cloves of garlic, finely minced
1/2 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup olive oil
1 lb. bella mushrooms, sliced
1/2 good red wine
1/3 cup heavy cream
3-4 sprigs of fresh rosemary
Sea salt and ground black pepper to taste

Heat your oven to 250F. Let the lamb chops come to room temperature, and marinate them for another 4-5 hours in the garlic, lemon juice and olive oil, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.

Heat a heavy metal or cast-iron pan over very high heat for a good 5-7 minutes. Sear three chops at a time for about 3-4 minutes per side, I warn you, this will smoke like hell so turn on your fans and open the windows so the fire departments doesn’t show up.

Set aside the seared chops in some foil and put them in the oven to stay warm and to finish cooking a bit longer.

In the same pan with the marinade and lamb juices, add the mushrooms and cook over medium heat until they start to brown and wilt a little.

Pour in the red wine and add the rosemary sprigs. Let the liquid come to a bubble, then lower the heat to medium, cover and let it simmer for about 5 minutes. You want it to reduce somewhat but not get completely syrupy.

Add the heavy cream, stir everything together, cover and turn off the heat.

Add some arugula to a plate, top with the polenta, add a heaping tablespoon of the creamy red wine mushrooms, and top with the lamb chops. Serve immediately, and to cries of joy and happiness……or were those screams from the rites of Dionysus?

6 thoughts on “The Secret History by Donna Tartt

    1. Thank you so much! The book was phenomenal. I wish I hadn’t waited to so long to read it, but I’m glad I finally did. And the meal itself came out wonderfully. If you do read the book, I think you’ll greatly enjoy it.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. This sounds beautifully written, Vanessa. The characters all sound so interesting too. I’m saving your recipe because I’ve never made polenta, and this just sounds wonderful. Beautiful review as always. ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jen! Thanks so much. The book is amazing. It’s one of those books in which nothing much is happening on the surface, but so much is happening underneath. It hooked me immediately. If you do read it, let me know. And the polenta came out soooooo good. I made it with homemade chicken stock, a little bit of heavy cream, and a sprinkle of Parmesan and we were drooling over it. Making polenta is very easy and also very Zen, as you just stand there and stir and stir for 20 minutes or so….like caramelizing onions or making risotto. I’m glad you enjoyed the book post. 🙂


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