Tartt, Donna 1964(?)–
Tartt, Donna 1964(?)–
PERSONAL: Born c. 1964, in Greenwood, MS. Education: Attended University of Mississippi and Bennington College.
AWARDS, HONORS: W.H. Smith Literary Award, 2003, for The Little Friend; Orange Prize for Fiction nomination, 2003, for The Little Friend.
The Secret History (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.
The Little Friend, Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.
ADAPTATIONS: An abridged version of The Secret History, read by Robert Sean Leonard, was released on audiocassette by Random House.
SIDELIGHTS: The splash of publicity surrounding Donna Tartt's $450,000 advance for The Secret History—the author's first novel—threatened to overshadow the work itself. The story concerns a group of college students who, under the influence of an eccentric professor of Greek, assemble themselves into an exclusive clique, eschewing the common activities of college life. A collective attitude of moral superiority and an interest in classics bind the group together, but ultimately their beliefs erode the group-members' values to the point where murder becomes an acceptable notion. The Secret History, Patricia Holtz summed up in the Toronto Globe and Mail, is the story "of would-be intellectuals devoid … of traditional moral character" and "of criminal acts committed by amateurs … and the resulting repercussions."
The setting of the novel, Hampden College, bears a strong resemblance to Tartt's Vermont alma mater, Ben-nington College. She had attended the University of Mississippi as a freshman, but found the campus too confining and restrictive. Moving to the more liberal campus of Bennington for her second year, Tartt attended writing classes with fellow-student and writer Bret Easton Ellis (author of Less Than Zero and American Psycho). Tartt started writing the book which would become The Secret History at Bennington, but it took her eight years to finish it. Ellis, who had read the manuscript, eventually introduced Tartt to agent Amanda Urban, "a name synonymous with hot young authors," according to Daniel Max in Elle. Tartt's phenomenal publishing deal for The Secret History generated a vast amount of publicity (in addition to her large advance on the novel, movie rights, and foreign contracts for eleven countries, Tartt received $500,000 for the paperback rights). The author was also profiled in a number of major magazines, including Vanity Fair, Elle, Esquire, and Mirabella.
The Secret History is less a mystery—the killers are revealed on the first page—than "an exploration of evil, both banal and bizarre," in the words of Martha Duffy in Time. The story is narrated by Richard Papen, a transfer student who disavows his own middle-class upbringing to gain entrance into an elitist circle of students. "The gradual moral seduction of Richard is all the more cleverly revealed by its depiction in his own voice," commented Andrew Rosenheim in the New York Times Book Review. As Richard becomes accepted by the group, he learns that four out of the five other members had participated in the bloody murder of a farmer who interrupted their late-night "bacchanal." When one among the small coterie threatens to betray this dark secret, that person, too, is killed. "Tartt shows a superior sense of pace, playing off her red herrings and fore-shadowings like an old hand at the suspense game," Duffy stated in Time. In the New York Times Book Review, Rosenheim praised Tartt's "skillful investigation of the chasm between academe's supposed ideals and the vagaries of its actual behavior" and further commented that her prose was "at once lush and precise." Nancy Wood, reviewing The Secret History in Maclean's, believed that Tartt "is strongest when she finds poetry in everyday events: the sights and smells of a campus, the familiarity of certain television shows." The Secret History, Wood concluded, "stands out as well written and original."
The buzz surrounding Tartt's second novel, The Little Friend, was just as strong as the speculation about her first one. This time her second work came after a ten-year absence from the literary scene, and this long waiting period heightened the expectations for her new work. The Little Friend also dealt with murder, but this time the murder remains unsolved. The main character, Harriet, is twelve years old and determined to find out who killed her brother, Robin, when she was just a baby. Robin's murder all but destroyed Harriet's family and her parents basically leave Harriet and her sister in the care of their grandmother, who raises them along with her own sisters and a maid. The book is also a portrait of the South in the 1970s, and some critics recognized echoes of Faulkner and other well-known Southern writers in the tale. With the long wait and the phenomenal success of her previous work in the shadows, critical reaction covered the entire spectrum, between contempt and unabashed praise. In Entertainment Weekly, Troy Patterson commented, "The Little Friend … wipes out. It is an extended prose catastro phe." In contrast, a Booklist reviewer described it as "exceptionally suspenseful" and "flawlessly written."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Hargreaves, Tracy, Donna Tartt's "Secret History": A Reader's Guide, Continuum (New York, NY), 2001.
Book, November-December 2002, pp. 80-81.
Booklist, September 1, 2002, p. 8; January 1, 2003, p. 793.
Bookseller, June 28, 2002, pp. 30-31.
Economist, October 26, 2002.
Elle, September 1992, pp. 172-176.
Entertainment Weekly, October 15, 2003, p. 70; November 1, 2002, p.72.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), September 26, 1992, p. C8.
Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2002, p. 1262.
Kliatt, January, 2004, p. 19.
Library Journal, October 15, 2002, p. 96.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 13, 1992, pp. 1, 13.
Maclean's, October 12, 1992, p. 85.
New Republic, December 30, 2002, p. 38.
New Statesman, October 28, 2002, pp. 48-49.
Newsweek, September 7, 1992, pp. 54-55; October 21, 2002, p. 66.
New Yorker, October 28, 2002.
New York Times Book Review, September 13, 1992, p. 3.
O, November, 2002, p. 176.
Publishers Weekly, September 7, 1992, p. 29; September 9, 2002, p. 40; November 4, 2002, p. 18.
Spectator, October 26, 2002, pp. 54-55.
Time, August 31, 1992, p. 69; October 21, 2002, p. 74.
World and I, March, 2003, p. 40.
BBC Web Site, http://www.bbc.co.uk/ (August 19, 2004), profile of Donna Tartt.
Donna Tartt Shrine, http://www.purpleglitter.com/ (August 19, 2004).
Guardian Unlimited Web Site, http://books.guardian.co.uk/ (August 19, 2004), Katharine Viner, "A Talent to Tantalise."
University of Mississippi Web Site, http://www.olemiss.edu/ (April 27, 2003), "Donna Tartt."