Donna Tartt's third novel, The Goldfinch, is already being greeted with awe. Why does her work inspire such devotion?by Hannah Rosefield / February 12, 2013 / Leave a comment
When The Secret History was published in September 1992, hype had been building for months. The author, Donna Tartt, was 28. She had received a $450,000 advance. She was elegant and miniature (“I’m the exact same size as Lolita,” she told an interviewer) and enigmatic. She could recite poetry, even entire short stories, by heart. As an undergraduate, legendary writer and editor Willie Morris had read her work and approached her with the words, “My name’s Willie Morris, and I think you’re a genius.”
Tartt’s vogueish glamour was boosted by her connections to the “literary brat pack,” a young, East Coast group of writers whose tales of drug use and disaffection were, in the late 80s and early 90s, a by-word for literary cool. Bret Easton Ellis, one of the leaders of the pack, had been Tartt’s close friend and classmate at Bennington College in Vermont. Tartt had started The Secret History at Bennington, and it was whispered that her friends there had been the models for the novel’s characters.
James Kaplan, interviewing the Mississippi-born Tartt for Vanity Fair, noted her ability to self-mythologise, but was happy to further the mystique. He labeled her “a precocious sprite… A Wise Child out of Salinger,” and announced that her talent was so great that, “all by herself” she constituted a new wave in Southern writing.
Twenty years later The Secret History is both an international bestseller and cult classic. But despite the novel’s huge success, Kaplan’s predictions for Donna Tartt have not come true. Since The Secret History, she has written only one novel: The Little Friend, published in 2002. It’s hard to embody a new wave of any kind of writing at a rate of slightly less than one book a decade.
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I first read The Secret History the autumn before I turned 15. Even then, I understood that this was the perfect age for it. Everyone I knew was reading it—first my friends, then other girls in my year, then what felt like the entire school. At one point, you could barely walk down the corridor or enter a classroom without catching sight of the familiar jacket, stark and black and unmistakeable. My friends and I talked about our favourite characters as much as we talked about the members of our favourite bands.