Daniel Roberts: The Last Book I Loved, The Secret History


In 2010, half of which I spent in grad school, I read scores of novels and short story collections, and liked many of them. I adored Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. I couldn’t put down Let the Great World Spin or McCarthy’s C. But I only loved one book: The Secret History.

It hooked me in ways that no other book ever has. The college campus, troubled characters, and shrouded events were all so vividly described and recognizable that, at times, I began to feel that Richard, the protagonist, was me. Like I was the one trudging alone through the blistering snow, going from campus to the shack he lived in during Christmas break one year: “When I walked home at night, things got white around the edges and it seemed I had no past, no memories, that I had been on this exact stretch of luminous, hissing road forever.”

So many of Tartt’s authorial choices in the book seemed flawless. The choice of Richard as the eyes through which to watch the action unfold: perfect. The idea to have the disturbed geniuses of the story be Classics majors: perfect. But what really blew me away about Tartt was her ability to inhabit the mind of a narrator that is of the opposite gender, though it’s certainly been done before (Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, for one). Tartt knows exactly how a young male college student would think. Take Richard describing Camilla: “She was wearing a man’s nightshirt. Much too big for her, and I found myself staring at her bare legs—tawny calves, slender ankles, lovely, dusty soled boy-feet.”

Everyone to whom I have recommended this book adored it, but even better, each person seems to envision the setting differently. This is, of course, the joy of fiction. A friend of mine told me in an e-mail, “Isn’t it cool how we each have two completely separate ideas of what this whole place looks like? Can’t you imagine how you picture the campus right now, even the library, or how Bunny’s room looked when they went in after about a week. I have such a clear idea of what the ravine looked like. There’s no way anyone could convince me of it looking any other way than it does in my head. I hope to god a movie is never made.”

And a friend of his, in turn, was emailing with him about what a potential film might be like (none is currently in the works), and pointed out that if one were made, it’s almost a given that the trailer music would have to be “Secrets” by One Republic. It’s just too perfect.

Above all else, the novel hit a nerve with me because of how closely it resembled a tragedy that happened at my own college in 2008. In fact, the similarities were downright spooky. My junior year, while I was abroad in Dublin, a 20-year-old freshman lacrosse player went missing on February 5th. It happened during February break, so very few students were on campus. And it happened in the middle of a snowstorm, making a search extremely difficult for local police.

When I arrived at this point in Tartt’s novel (this isn’t really a spoiler; you learn in the first 20 pages that the students kill their friend), I got goosebumps. Days after the crew leaves Bunny lying in a ravine (thinking he’d be found right away), a huge snow falls, making the search last for weeks. Back in 2008, meanwhile, months went by. It was especially strange watching the crisis unfold from Ireland, through news reports and emails. My friends on campus told me the place took on an empty, muted feel. People were less inclined to bundle up and walk to a party. Rumors and speculation went around about whether the guy had been kidnapped, or ran away. I chatted with friends and we blindly imagined a scenario in which he was walking back to his dorm and some sicko passing by in a car offered him a ride, and that was it. Or maybe he had been drunk and wandered off somewhere, fell asleep in a snowbank, and never woke up. Finally on May 27, literally the end of the school year, local police found the boy’s body in the creek near campus.

A passage from The Secret History did not fit the situation from 2008 exactly, but certainly was close enough to make me gasp: “From the news accounts one would have thought Bunny the most stereotypical of “substance abusers” or “troubled teens.” It did not matter a whit that everyone who knew him (including us: Bunny was no juvenile delinquent) denied this; no matter that the autopsy showed only a tiny percentage of blood alcohol and no drugs at all; no matter that he was not even a teenager: the rumors—wheeling vulture-like in the skies above his corpse—had finally descended and sunk in their claws for good. A paragraph which blandly stated the results of the autopsy appeared in the back of the Hampden Examiner.

Obviously part of my experience with this novel was personal, but I’d bet the book speaks to almost any reader in myriad ways. I’m not sure if any book I read in the future will ever be so arresting, exciting and rewarding.

Daniel Roberts is a magazine reporter and book blogger in New York. You can follow him on Twitter or check out his other published work. More from this author →