8 Great Books for Fans of The Secret History

Donna Tartt's The Secret History

In the 20 years since the publication of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, following the obsessive, incestuous friendship of a small group of classics students at an elite New England college, the book has attracted a cultlike following of its own. Like its narrator, Richard, who longs to be a part of the secretive group, readers are enraptured by the seductive delights of Tartt’s prose, which pulls you deep into a twisted world of emotional manipulation and addiction. Even when things devolve into murder and regret, the hunger remains.

Sadly, by its nature, The Secret History isn’t the kind of book that’s getting a sequel any time soon, but there are other books that might scratch the same itch. Below, find a list of eight books that just might get you obsessed all over again.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. This one is a given, isn’t it? Only her third novel in 20 years, The Goldfinch was published this fall to the delight of a legion of fans who have been salivating for more from her since the release of The Little Friend in 2002. Tartt’s latest, about a boy who survives a bombing at an art gallery (though his mother does not), walking away unnoticed from the rubble with the titular priceless painting in hand, offers many of the same delights as her debut: buried secrets, tortured family drama, and murder most foul.

The Magic Circle, by Jenny Davidson. If what you’re looking for is more obsession with Classical studies, consider this one. Three roommates at Columbia University explore the hidden past of the school and its surrounding neighborhoods through a series of academic “games,” and later, live recreations of Greek tragedies. Things get… out of hand. Told in a mix of media, including internet chats and blog posts.

The Likeness, by Tana French. In the second of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad novels, young detective Cassie Maddox finds herself in danger of getting too close to her investigation when, through a series of rather fantastic coincidences (i.e., she happens to look exactly like a murder victim, to the point where even her friends can’t tell the difference, and is this Orphan Black all of a sudden?), she finds herself on the inside of a group of insular grad students who live together in a creepy old house and may be concealing a terrible secret. Good fun if you can swallow the premise.

Black Chalk, by Christopher J. Yates. Six friends, first years at Oxford, get too caught up in what was (say it with me now) only supposed to be a joke, a psychological game of chicken that requires the players to submit to increasingly humiliating dares. But as the stakes kept getting higher, things spin out of control. Fourteen years later, the players (some still haunted by the past) are meeting again to put an end to it all.

The Shadow Year, by Hannah Richell. In 1980, three friends discover an abandoned cottage in the English countryside and decide to drop out of their lives and stay there in isolation. What seems at first like a hidden paradise turns less idyllic as temperatures drop and tensions mount—then the sudden appearance of a stranger changes everything. The story picks up 30 years later, when a new inhabitant moves into the cottage and starts exploring its mysterious, er, secret history. Which certain people might not want her to do.

The Year of the Gadfly, by Jennifer Mather. Comparing this too closely with Donna Tartt is a bit of a stretch, but if you’re into the whole secret society thing (and the New England boarding school atmosphere), it’s a fun read. The students and faculty at an elite boarding school are being threatened and blackmailed by the mysterious Prisom’s Party, a secret society that operated at the school decades earlier. It’s up to Iris Dupont, a budding investigative journalist who carries on conversations with the ghost of Edward R. Murrow, to uncover the secrets of the school’s past—and her own. Dun dun dun!

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman. If you thought Donna Tartt’s novel was good but was missing a few witches and wizards, Grossman’s literary fantasy novel has plenty to satisfy your craving. Bored New York rich kid Quentin has always longed for an escape, so when he stumbles across the existence of Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, a school devoted to the study of real spells-and-stuff magic, he never looks back. He soon finds an in with the school’s academic elite, an insular group that’s been practicing magic that goes far beyond their coursework. Fantasy trappings aside, Grossman’s novel is perhaps the closest in spirit to Tartt’s, and shares with it a focus on what a high-pressure environment can do to warp, mutate—or poison—friendships.

The Basic Eight, by Daniel Handler. The Secret History in high school, this time from the author behind the Lemony Snicket books, and offering up the same sharp sense of fatalistic humor and an even darker edge. Told in flashback, this novel unpacks what really happened among a group of ultra-popular elites (the titular Basic Eight) at an exclusive boarding school that, a year later, has one of them labeled a  murderess by the tabloid press. She wants us to know that, as usual, things just got out of hand. As they do. Kids, let this be a lesson to you: no secret societies!

What’s your favorite Secret History-esque book? We can’t help loving books with scary cliques and boarding schools!

  • Leslie Garson LaBranche

    Repairman Jack. ‘Nuff said.

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