The Secret History
The Goldfinch author Donna Tartt’s debut novel follows a group of students at an elite New England college whose collective fascination with classical history eventually leads them to commit murder. High art, class conflict, and unrequited love come together in what emerges as a strange synthesis of the campus novel and murder mystery genres.
Hard partying, heartbreak, skinny-dipping, social politics, and all of it set at an exclusive boarding school in New England. Narrated by a hyper-perceptive outsider—a scholarship student from Indiana—Prep contains all the right ingredients for an immersive, voyeuristic look at elite campus life.
A Separate Peace
Set at an American boarding school in the 1940s, this classic novel tells of the friendship between two indelible characters—Phineas (“Finny”) and Gene. A story of envy, tragedy, and eventual forgiveness, the book has long been accompanied by rumors of romance between the protagonists. Just how deep is the connection between the two friends? Every reader must decide for herself.
British novelist Kingsley Amis’s first and best-known novel, Lucky Jim, tells of a history lecturer at an unbespoke English college who botches, in extravagant fashion, his own desperate attempts to secure tenure. Fueled by alcohol and illicit romance, Amis’s hero emerges as a sharp-eyed critic of academic hypocrisy.
The Campus Trilogy
David Lodge has long been a go-to source for academic satire. His Campus Trilogy collects three novels that investigate the pitfalls and petty politics of the tenure track.
The Human Stain
In Roth’s The Human Stain, an aging professor is ousted from his position after making what is deemed to be a racial slur. But a secret the man has been harboring all his life—uncovered by a writer who takes an interest in him—renders the event, in the words of Publishers Weekly, “surreal.”
Recently reissued by New York Review Books, this once-obscure novel is enjoying a second life as a contemporary classic. Set in the early 20th century on the University of Missouri campus, the book explores the ways in which societal repression can compound the essential loneliness of human life.
The Rules of Attraction
Bret Easton Ellis
This delightfully debauched campus novel sees a cadre of rich college students—and a few not-so-rich ones—wreaking havoc on themselves and others at a hoity-toity liberal arts college in New Hampshire. A warning that reads “Do Not Try This At School” wouldn’t be out of place on its cover.
Inspired by E. M. Forster’s Howards End, Zadie Smith’s novel describes the experiences of a multiracial family living in Boston, where the father is a university professor. Smith infuses the campus novel framework with considerations of race, ethnicity, and privilege, both within academic life and without.
The bad news? The school year begins in just a few weeks. The good news? There’s no better time than now to dig into juicy campus novels. From John Knowles’s classic A Separate Peace to Curtis Sittenfeld’s contemporary Prep, these books take readers behind the ivied walls and down the secret-filled halls of fiction’s most intriguing schools.
Featured Image: @jenniheller/Twenty20