In some respects, I’m not entirely sure I should even include Donna Tartt on this list. Unlike those writers that have preceded her in this informal tally and most who will follow her (certainly all of them in the initial ten that inspired the series), I haven’t read pages upon pages of her prose. In fact, I’ve only read one book. Of course, she’s only published two, so I’m not doing too bad on a percentage basis.
It is a fair indicator, then, of just how much I value that one book. The Secret History was published in the fall of 1992 and I often think of it, perhaps erroneously, as the first novel I bought for myself to read after graduating college. Meaning, it was the first book I chose once I was freed from the educational tyranny of assigned texts, when reading could finally fully and completely take the place of studying. I can still remember pulling it off the shelf at Little Professor Books in the mall in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, surveying it like it was a treasure, a sensation terrifically easy to conjure up due to the striking design of the cover, accentuated by the clear plastic book jacket. I’ve already noted the ways that different authors represented steps towards adulthood, and that was definitely the case with Tartt. There was a clear divide between being a student who occasionally found time for recreational reading and a graduate who had no syllabus whatsoever dictating my selections. The Secret History was freedom in the form of bound pages.
Of course, the irony of that situation is that the novel centered on a college student, and one who happened to be buried under a shifting mountain of classical writing. The story follows Richard Papen, a young man living a modest, lonely existence in California who gains entry to a small private college in Vermont, eventually making his way to a particular elite group of students that engage in concentrated studies of Ancient Greek with Classics professor Julian Morrow. It is more than a class or a study group, and is instead almost a perverse sulf-sustaining ecosystem of oddly erudite psychodrama, often co-opting the mores of centuries earlier. Naturally, it leads to darker and darker places.
It was certainly no mystery why I might particularly relate to a story of a young, directionless, even somewhat misanthropic man who found his place in college, especially at that point in time. But I was also attracted to the merging of liveliness and intellect in Tartt’s prose. There was a psychological acuteness to everything she wrote, a compelling ability to burrow into her characters, knowing just how to reveal their inner beings through the comments, actions and, importantly, inaction. Beyond that, there was a fluidity to the writing that was the perfect counter to some of the stiffness that I’d endured in various classes.
At the time, I was ready to follow Tartt absolutely anywhere, which led to the sole time in my life I’ve purchased an issue of GQ, just because Tartt had a short story in it (anyone who’s spent a little time in my presence can assure you I wasn’t buying it because of an abiding interest in fashion). That noted, Tartt’s sophomore effort, The Little Friend (released a decade later), has sat on my shelf for years, untouched except for instances when it was moved from one spot (or one state) to another. I’ll get to it someday, even if I’ve actually been dissuaded from reading it by one of my most trusted literary compatriots. I owe it to Tartt. She gave me so much with that first assemblage of words. How can I not following her deeper into the dark woods, even if I suspect trouble may be waiting.