18 Must-Read Books for “Secret History” Lovers

secret_historyIf you liked The Secret History by Donna Tartt (I make no secret of the fact that I absolutely adored this book; one of my favorites of all time; easily top 10), here are 18 other books you simply must read:

1.  The Goldfinch, also by Donna Tartt.

This one might seem obvious, but if you like Tartt’s writing, why would you not try some more?  While nothing, even by Tartt herself, could ever match The Secret History for compelling characters and delightfully secretive activities, The Goldfinch I found to be more reminiscent of The Secret History than her other work, The Little Friend.  The Goldfinch enjoys it’s own mysteries and surprises, this time in the art world (a literary place I can’t seem to get enough of).  If you haven’t read it yet, and you want more Tartt, this is a perfect place to start.

2.  The Magic Circle, by Jenny Davidson.

If it was the obsession with Classical studies that captured your interest (Guilty!), then you will love The Magic Circle.  Three roommates, this time at Columbia University, explore the hidden past of the school and its surrounding neighborhoods through a series of academic “games,” and later through live interactions involving the reenactment of Greek tragedies.  Perhaps not surprisingly, things get out of hand.  Davidson also dabbles in the modern trend of including portions of fictional blog posts and emails and internet chats in her work.  Many contemporary authors have jumped on this bandwagon (Marisha Pessl’s Night Film and J.J. Abrams’s Ship of Theseus come to mind).  See what you think of Davidson’s use of this technique.

3.  The Likeness, by Tana French.

Ireland’s answer to Gillian Flynn, crime writer Tana French knows how to tell a suspenseful story. While all her stories are full of fun and mystery, this one in particular was great, including a young, beautiful detective who looks just like the murder victim, and a group of graduate students who live together in a creepy old house.  Doesn’t get much better than that, and makes French’s The Likeness a perfect companion for The Secret History.

4.  Black Chalk, by Christopher J. Yates

Much like The Magic Circle above, in Black Chalk, six friends, first years at Oxford (are you picking up on the pattern?) get involved in a series of increasingly dangerous dares, described as a “psychological game of chicken,” but things rapidly spin out of control.  The players meet up 14 years later to put an end to it all, and more craziness ensues.  If that’s too many secrets and hijinks and academic settings for you, then that is certainly your prerogative.  But I personally can’t get enough.

5. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger.

A small departure from the academic secret society scene, this classic is one any Secret History fan would also love.  There is an academic setting, at least in the beginning.  There is coming of age and brooding.  There is angst.  Danger.  This was one of my favorite books long before my love affair with all things Tartt.  But I think that if you like Tartt, you’ll like Salinger, especially this one (though Franny and Zooey comes in at a close second).

6.  The Year of the Gadfly, by Jennifer Mather.

Okay, so I’m going back to the secret society thing.  Who can stay away?  The writing isn’t exactly like Tartt, but the atmosphere is (I’m talking boarding school; I’m talking New England).  The students and faculty are being threatened by a secret society, the Prisom’s Party.  There’s a budding journalist on the case.  School secrets!  Can they solve the mystery, gang?

7.  Variant, by Robison Wells.

While we’re going different writing but similar themes, let’s talk Variant by Robison Wells.  It’s a school, but unlike any school you’ve ever seen.  Surprises you will not anticipate.  A little bit sci-fi, which is not my usual fare, but worth the investment.  It’s like “Shawshank Redemption” meets “School Ties” meets “The Stepford Wives” meets “The Faculty.”  I know that’s a lot of movie references thrown at you all at once, but if you can follow and you dig it, check it out.

8.  The Magicians, by Lev Grossman.

And since we’ve wandered this far, we might as well throw in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.  I do fantasy even less frequently than I do sci-fi, but this one was worth the detour.  I’ve heard it called “like Harry Potter for adults.”  I guess I can see that.  Here too we have mystery and intrigue, and all the school secrets you can handle.  In fact, even the school itself is secret.  And hidden.  And magical (I know, I know, I thought the same thing).  But if you can get past all that, it’s fun and frolicking and worth the investment.  I already have the next one in the series too.  I need to get on it.

9.  The Basic Eight, by Daniel Handler.

Back to the more traditional scary clique/boarding school theme, we have The Basic Eight.  Think The Secret History, only in high school.  This is from the same author as the Lemony Snicket books, only darker.  Much, much darker.  When will these kids learn their lesson?  Too many secrets!  Stay away from the secret societies!  But a fun ride.  Check it out!

10.  American Pscyho, by Bret Easton Ellis.

Okay, this one may seem like a departure too far, but hear me out.  We have a protagonist moving among the young and trendy, desperate to fit in.  We have a deep and active internal life.  We have secrets.  We have drugs.  We have violence.  We have the depravity of the human soul.  And can we say bacchanalia?  Not identical in story, I grant you.  But the more you think about it, the more it kind of makes sense.

11.  Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInereney.

And here’s some more along those same lines.  Excess?  Check!  Big city?  Check!  Escape?  Check!  And cocaine.  CHECK!!!  Lots and lots of cocaine.  Just try it (the book, that is.  Less so the cocaine).

12.  Lord of the Flies, by William Golding.

For me, this is maybe one of the best follow-ups to an enjoyable Secret History experience you can get.  We have mob/group thinking, also leading to violence.  Dynamics within a group.  Power and corruption.  And a good look at what happens to people when they yield to their darkest impulses.  For any book nerds/scholars out there, as thesis ideas go, you could do worse than something like “Odd Men Out in Great Literature: From Piggy (Lord of the Flies) to Bunny (The Secret History).”  Just put my name and website in a footnote, and I promise not to get my attorneys involved.

13.  On the Road, by Jack Kerouac.

The setting is different, sure, but here again we have young adults desperate to find their place in the world.  There is adventure, and seeking.  Partying.  The characters and setting are not the same, but the sense of wandering (more geographic than internal in On the Road) is familiar between the two.  Plus, you just have to read On the Road at least once in your life.  You just have to.

14.  The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain.

This is the tale of a young wanderer with questionable morals and a beautiful, sullen woman with an inconvenient husband.  You know where this is headed.  With the suspense and tension of an Alfred Hitchcock film, you know what’s going to happen, but you still can’t stop “watching.”  The seemingly simple solution does not go off quite as planned, creating a bigger mess than anyone would have anticipated.

15.  The Rule of Four, by Ian Caldwell.

Back to pure academia, in Caldwell’s The Rule of Four, it’s Easter at Princeton, and seniors are scrambling to finish up their final theses.  But two students in particular are close to unraveling the secrets behind an ancient, mysterious text that has become an obsession for both of them.  So this one might sound a little too Dan Brown/”National Treasure-y” for you, but it’s fun nevertheless

16.  Less Than Zero, by Bret Easton Ellis

In Less Than Zero, our protagonist, Clay, comes home for Christmas vacation from his Eastern college and re-enters a landscape of limitless privilege and absolute moral entropy, where everyone drives Porsches, dines at fancy restaurants, and snorts mountains of cocaine (that’s right, MOUNTAINS of cocaine!). He tries to renew feelings for his girlfriend, Blair, and for his best friend from high school, Julian, who is careering into hustling and heroin. Clay’s holiday turns into a dizzying spiral of desperation that takes him through the relentless parties in glitzy mansions, seedy bars, and underground rock clubs and also into the seamy world of L.A. after dark. (amazon.com)

17.  The Shadow Year, by Hannah Richell.

In this captivating tale, it’s 1980, and three friends discover an abandoned cottage in the English countryside.  Somewhat fantastically, they decide to drop out of their real lives and stay in the cottage in isolation (doesn’t it sound kind of awesome?  Just imagine how much reading/writing you could get done).  What seems like an idyllic paradise turns scary, however, as temperatures drop and tensions mount.  A stranger suddenly appears who changes everything.  For better or worse?  You’ll have to read and find out.  The story picks up 30 years later when a new inhabitant moves in and starts poking around, uncovering mysteries some people may not want her to.  Uh oh!

18.  The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith.

And finally, any “people who loved The Secret History” list would be incomplete without Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley.  What an excellent, dark, and creepy book about deceit and pretending and the dark secrets we keep inside.  Plus, it has Italy, which doesn’t necessarily make it more like Tartt’s masterpiece, but it does make it decidedly more fun.  Proof that some people will stop at nothing to get what they want.  Personally, I’m not sure myself what steps I would take if someone tried to get me to leave Italy either.  Fun, fun, fun.  But dark.  But fun.  Didn’t hate the movie either!

That’s the list.  I can’t take all the credit.  Special thanks to Barnes & Noble and my new favorite website LibraryPoint.org for their helpful suggestions and reviews.  If anyone else has any Secret History-esque favorites, I am all ears.  Happy reading!

4 thoughts on “18 Must-Read Books for “Secret History” Lovers

  1. Not identical, but a bonus #19 would be The Time Traveler’s Wife. I don’t know if it has any compelling similarities other than the fact that Niffenegger is another of my favorite authors. If you haven’t read it yet, you’re missing out!

    • Seriously! Beware the rabbit hole, though. It starts with 18 Books to Read if you loved The Secret History. Then you start reading the 18 books to read if you liked reading each of those 18 books. And it just keeps going. But it’s a fun kind of obsession/insanity.

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