Ready to Go Back to School? Campus Novels to Get You In The Mood

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The Secret History | Donna Tartt

Pretty much the poster child mascot of every campus novel list ever, let's just start here and get it out of the way. This book is amazing, the hype is all true. It's ancient Greek myth, and snobby, elegant rich college kids, and murder, and friendship all just soaked in atmosphere. Seriously, the atmosphere in here is absolutely stunning; I've never read anything quite like it. It's set on a college campus in Vermont, and much of the action happens in classrooms and dorms, so you'll have your fill of all that collegiate goodness. 

 

If We Were Villains | M. L. Rio

If you loved the plot of The Secret History so much you can't wait to get your hands on another one, If We Were Villains is your best bet. Instead of the ancient Greeks, these characters are all actors and obsessed with Shakespeare. Same plot points of murder/friendship/rivalry though, and of course, it's set on a very exclusive private college campus.

 

A Separate Peace | John Knowles

This is one of those books I read in school and has really stuck with me for the last 15 years. It's set at an all boys boarding school in England during the early years of WWII, and centers on the friendship of two boys and an incident that changes their lives and relationship forever. Themes of adolescence, loss of innocence, and all the complexities and pressures of attending the boarding school abound. 

 

Black Chalk | Christopher J. Yates

In this story we have six friends attending Oxford who all play a game of dares amongst themselves. It starts out pretty innocent, but deepens as they raise the stakes and the consequences. This is obviously going to go south sometime, and to further complicate it, there is the looming presence of a shadowy secret society. It's fairly plot driven, but has a complex layered structure of unreliability. If you like unreliable narrators, this one takes it to the next level, possibly two or three levels up. 

 

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Brideshead Revisited | Evelyn Waugh

One of my very favorite classics, the bulk of this novel centers on the main character's time at Oxford. Waugh is a gorgeous writer and recounts the relationship between two young men (one of whom is very rich, and very complicated) in the waning days of England's great houses. Warm and full of love and complex friendships, grandeur and loss, it's also above all utterly mired in deep, deep nostalgia. 

 

The Marriage Plot | Jeffrey Eugenides

Set in the early '80's, English major Madeline Hanna is writing her senior thesis on the plot device of marriage that drives some of the greatest novels of the 19th century. Cue a love triangle for Madeline, and the resulting fallout. Literary, character driven, and surprisingly deep, it explores whether the trope of the marriage plot is dead in the modern world, where marriage isn't the penultimate goal, and divorce is rampant. 

 

This Side of Paradise | F. Scott Fitzgerald

This is actually Fitzgerald's very first novel, and while it isn't as tightly woven as some of his later works (ahem, Gatsby), it's still full of his signature magic. The story centers on Amory Blaine, a student at Princeton, and explores youth and love that is tainted by extravagance, greed, and status. It's supposedly semi-autobiographical and representative of the morality and lives of "the lost generation", which completely fascinates me. 

 

Stoner | John Williams

Seriously, this novel is perfect. Our hero is a professor of literature at the University of Missouri, with a generally lackluster (grim, maybe?) home life, and a fairly colorful one on campus. He is a man with a lot of integrity, a deep love of literature, and who is an accomplished scholar. The novel gives great details on the petty machinations, vicious office politics, and behind the scenes back-stabbings in the dark halls of academia if that's your thing!

The Raven Boys | Maggie Stiefvater

One of the more popular YA fantasy series of the past few years, featuring a private school for rich boys, ghosts, magic, prophecies, friendship, and of course a love story. It's shockingly atmospheric, has great characters, and of course is a bit different than your average campus novel.

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A Prayer for Owen Meany | John Irving

Much of this book revolves around the friendship of Owen and John, and much of their friendship develops through their school years and their attendance together at Gravesend Academy. This is much more than a campus novel though, and is basically a basket of emotions, and layers, and stellar writing. This is one seriously beloved novel, and comes highly recommended by pretty much the entire world. 

 

Possession | A.S. Byatt

This won the Man Booker back in 1990 and for good reason. The two main characters are both academics researching two different Victorian poets when they realize (after much literary sleuthing) that the poets they are researching had an affair with one another. Byatt attacks the insular world of academia, while crafting an amazing love story that is equal parts passion and anguish. This is one of those deeply melancholy, atmospheric novels that is full of puzzles and brilliance, and is tailor made for those who love the world of academia. 

 

Fangirl | Rainbow Rowell

On a lighter note, Fangirl is about Cath's adjustment to college life without her twin glued to her side, and growing into her authorship of fanfiction based on the Simon Snow (Harry Potter) novels. She's a little obsessed with the fandom (aren't we all) and this book is such a great look at fandom and fanfic culture, as well as what it's like to grow into yourself that first year away from home. I loved it. 

 

Never Let Me Go | Kazuo Ishiguro

The less said about the plot of this novel the better. Do yourself a favor and don't google it! What I will say is that Ishiguro is a profoundly talented writer, and the book is largely set at a boarding school in the English countryside. It's a literary mystery, an ethical critique, a love story, and a coming of age novel all rolled into one fascinating package. 

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Do you have a favorite campus novel??