Donna Tartt’s global blockbuster The Secret History follows six Classics students at Hampden College, an elite—somewhat louche—institution loosely based on Vermont’s Bennington College, where Tartt herself was a student. As our narrator Richard Papen reflects on the events leading up to the death of his friend Edmund ‘Bunny’ Corcoran, The Secret History explores the limits of morality and the devastating consequences of secrets. Credited with inspiring the ‘dark academia’ trend, Tartt draws us into the lives of a socially isolated cohort and their eccentric professor at an elite liberal arts college as their lives are forever altered. Since publication in 1992, The Secret History has been translated into 24 languages and sold over 5 million copies worldwide.
If you are one of those fans, you may be looking for a new book to scratch that same itch. Here are five books we think you’ll like if you loved The Secret History.
Tartt’s third novel, The Goldfinch (2013), is the most obvious go-to read for those who have just discovered The Secret History. The novel centres on Theodore Decker, a thirteen-year-old boy from New York whose life is forever changed after he survives a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum that kills his mother. As he stumbles through the debris he happens upon a small painting, which he takes with him—this painting being by none other than Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch. (This perfectly formed little artwork has found its popularity “hugely enhanced” in the wake of the book’s publication, The Guardian reports—200,000 queued to see it when it was exhibited at the Frick Collection in 2014.)
This coming-of-age novel follows Theo throughout his life observing the effects of that fateful day, transporting us to art’s seedy underworld. Like The Secret History, this book is a literary novel full of mystery, grief, and suspense.
Famous for her bestselling YA Shadow and Bone trilogy and the Six of Crows duology, Leigh Bardugo made her adult debut with Ninth House, the first in the Alex Stern series. Published in 2019, this paranormal fantasy novel combines magic, mystery, and the Ivy League elite.
Alex Stern had a tumultuous upbringing. As a reckless teenager and sole survivor of a brutal unsolved mass murder, Alex has been given a second chance at life in the form of an unexpected full scholarship to Yale. Full of mysterious benefactors, unsolved murders, ghosts, and secret societies, Bardugo’s award-winning book will, like The Secret History, keep you on the edge of your seat.
Award-winning author and close friend of Donna Tartt in Bennington College, Bret Easton Ellis’ 1987 novel The Rules of Attraction follows the lives of a group of bohemian students at a liberal arts college. Set in ‘Camden College’, New Hampshire in the 1980s, this black comedy examines the pains of misplaced love. Our protagonist Sean Bateman, a deeply cynical drug dealer and student at Camden, has recently fallen in love with the depressive Lauren Hynde whose ex-lover Paul Denton claims to also be in a sexual relationship with Sean. This unstable love triangle makes for an equally controversial and hilarious story of sex, drugs, and unrequited love.
Hanya Yanagihara’s critically-acclaimed, bestselling novel A Little Life—ranked 96th on the Guardians list of 100 best books of the 21st century—portrays a group of friends who have been broken and bonded by the tragedy of their friend Jude’s death.
When the novel opens, we meet JB, Malcolm, Willem, and Jude, four young me who—having met in college—are now living in New York trying to start their careers. As the story continues, it shifts its focus to the enigmatic Jude. The reader is met with harrowing, graphic descriptions of what Jude suffered as a child in the form of flashbacks interspersed throughout the novel, and he must reckon with the long term consequences of this trauma. A Little Life is a gut-wrenching read which not only explores the nature of tragedy but also that of love and friendship—making it the perfect read for a lover of The Secret History.
The American author M. L. Rio’s debut thriller If We Were Villains combines campus drama and Shakespearian tragedy. This murder mystery is set in the illustrious ‘Dellecher Classical Conservatory,’ and follows seven young actors whose lives are torn apart when one of their number is found dead under mysterious circumstances. Oliver Marks, one of the students, is prosecuted for the crime yet retired detective Joseph Colborne still has questions about the night of Richard’s murder—and Oliver’s guilt is called into question. If you’re after another book with dark academia vibes that will leave you shattered, If We Were Villains should definitely be on your to-be-read pile.
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