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The Secret History

I have a well-worn copy of The Secret History on my bookshelf. It’s written by Donna Tartt and, as far as I’m concerned, is far superior to her recent novel The Goldfinch.

From the book’s jacket: “Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and forever, and they discover how hard it can be to truly live and how easy it is to kill.”

That description makes it sound like a cheap thriller, but really it’s a thoughtful, philosophical work of literature.

The Secret History is an intriguing study of otherness, narrated by a young man looking from the outside in. The narrator is Richard Papen, an aimless college student who has escaped his lower-class life in California and becomes enamored of his wealthy classmates.

I think one of the reasons I like this book is that I identify with Richard’s background. I was raised in the mountain coalfields of Appalachia by poor parents. Many of my fellow students at the University of Virginia were wealthy—some were filthy rich—and the lives they led confounded me. My college years were marked by a distinct feeling of being out of place.

Richard spends most of the novel watching his classmates without investing his true self in his relationships with them. I understand that as well. Often I felt as if I needed to be someone else in order to be accepted. Certainly that’s a feeling a lot of college students have, but I think those who “grow up hard” experience it with such intensity that they struggle throughout their undergraduate journey.

Here’s an excerpt from The Secret History.

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