10 campus novels that will take you back to your school days

10 campus novels that will take you back to your school days

If your days on campus are long behind you, have no fear: these 10 novels will take you right back, without the stress anxiety, term papers, or 6-figure tuition bill.

Today’s list features contemporary fiction, YA, an epistolary novel, a few mysteries. We even have a rom-com of sorts. Some are set in high school, some in college, some stories are told from the professors’ point of view. This list is diverse, but the common thread is the university experience.

Notice I didn’t say these books would make you want to go back to school—while these stories may make us wistful for our school days, they also graphically illustrate just how dangerous a college campus can be! (I’m looking at you, Donna Tartt.)

How do you feel about campus novels? What are your favorites? I’m looking forward to hearing all about it in comments.

Campus Novels
My Oxford Year

My Oxford Year

Author:
Ella Durran is a fancy political consultant, but she can't say no the opportunity the offer of a Rhodes Scholarship. But then she's offered her dream position with a presidential campaign she believes in, and she can't say no to that either. To add to the chaos, she develops a massive crush on her English professor, who—of course—turns out to be keeping a few secrets from her. Chaos ensues. This is a fast-moving romantic comedy-of-sorts, with an incredible setting, and characters that feel like the friends you might have actually had (or wanted) at university. You should probably know that the publisher recommends this for Nicholas Sparks fans (and I can see why). More info →
Gaudy Night: A Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery with Harriet Vane

Gaudy Night: A Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery with Harriet Vane

This is Sayers' tenth Lord Peter novel, her third featuring Harriet Vane, and undoubtedly one of her finest. (They needn’t be read in order.) When Ms. Vane returns to Oxford for her college’s reunion (the “gaudy” of the title), the festive mood on campus is threatened by an alarming outbreak of murderous threats. We're reading this for September in the Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club. More info →
The Secret History

The Secret History

Author:
The setting is a small Vermont college, the characters members of an isolated, eccentric circle of classics majors, who murder one of their own. The story begins with the murder, and the lonely, introspective narrator devotes the rest of the novel to telling the reader about his role in it, and how he seemingly got away with it. Strongly reminiscent of The Likeness in setting, Crime and Punishment in plot, and Brideshead Revisited in tone. Opinions differ widely on Tartt's debut novel: it's a compelling—and chilling—tale, but there's not a single likable character. More info →
On Beauty: A Novel

On Beauty: A Novel

Author:
In this sweeping, multi-ethnic, multi-generational novel, an interracial family gets caught in the culture wars. Author Zadie Smith, who rocketed to literary stardom with White Teeth and Swing Time, writes about family and politics, and the places where they intersect. Zadie Smith says about her novel: "My largest structural debt should be obvious to any E.M. Forster fan; suffice it to say he gave me a classy old frame, which I covered with new material as best I could." More info →
The Likeness

The Likeness

Author:
It's the second (and perhaps the best) in Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series, which doesn't need to be read in order. Detective Cassie Maddux is pulled off her current beat and sent to investigate a murder. When she arrives at the scene, she finds the victim looks just like her, and—even more creepy—she was using an alias that Cassie used in a previous case. The victim was a student, and her boss talks her into trying to crack the case by impersonating her, explaining to her friends that she survived the attempted murder. The victim lived with four other students in a strangely intimate, isolated setting, and as Cassie gets to know them, liking them almost in spite of herself, her boundaries—and loyalties—begin to blur. A taught psychological thriller that keeps you guessing till the end. Trigger warnings required, and kept me glued to the couch for two days. More info →
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Author:
The narrator is Blue van Meer, a teenager who has been moving from town to town with her father ever since her mother died, accompanying him to each of his short-term professorial stints at tiny liberal arts colleges across the country. Her senior year of high school, her father declares they will spend the whole year in one place, and Blue falls in with an enigmatic teacher and a hand-picked group of students she's gathered around her. I was expecting a Very Serious Literary Book, and instead it *almost* read like YA. The whole book is strongly reminiscent of The Secret History (a sparkly, pop art The Secret History), yet despite this I still didn't see that big left turn coming. This is our book flight pick for September in the Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club. More info →
Falling Together

Falling Together

Pen, Will, and Cat met ("met cute," in fact) during their first week of college and were inseparable during their years on campus. After graduation, they hated the thought of their amazing friendship slowly fading, so they decided to end it. Years go by with no contact, until Pen receives a strange email from Cat begging her to meet her at their college reunion. She can't help but say yes, and that's when their journey begins. A thoughtful exploration of the complexities of love, grief, and human nature, and I love its vivid portrayal of friendship in the college years and beyond. More info →
The Female Persuasion

The Female Persuasion

Author:
Greer Kadetsky meets the charasmatic Faith Frank, pillar of the womens' liberation movement, in the bathroom after a rally her best friend persuades her to come along for during their freshman year of college. Faith gives Greer a business card and then proceeds to mentor her, changing Greer's life and career in the process. We follow Greer from university parties to her first job, and into her trajectory with Faith's influential foundation. Along the way, Greer is torn between friendship and ambition, knowing when to compromise and when to draw a line in the sand. Like a meatier The Devil Wears Prada (although pairs of killer suede boots still play a role), this is a story about power and loyalty. Part satire, part feminist primer. More info →
Dear Mr. Knightley

Dear Mr. Knightley

Author:
Samantha Moore spent her childhood struggling in the foster care system, relying on her favorite literary characters to survive. She even expresses herself using their words when she can't find her own. Samantha's big break comes when a "Mr. Knightley" offers her a full scholarship at the prestigious journalism school at Northwestern University. The only requirement is that Sam write her benefactor regularly to tell him about her progress. Through their correspondence, Sam begins to find her voice ... but then things get complicated. Fanfiction stinks, but this is the exception. You all keep saying this fresh update on Jean Webster's 1899 classic Daddy-Long-Legs with serious nods to Jane Austen's Emma is your favorite Katherine Reay novel; I think it might be mine as well. More info →
Crossing to Safety

Crossing to Safety

Author:
This novel asks, "How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these?" The answer: just like this. Stegner weaves a compelling story out of four ordinary lives and their extraordinary, life-changing friendship as it spans across forty years. Superb writing, gentle pacing, and an adroit examination of friendship, love, and marriage. This is one of my all-time favorites, but if you’ve hung out on MMD for any amount of time, you probably already know that. Bonus: after reading it six or so times, I think I finally, finally understand what the title means. More info →

What would you add to this list? What are YOUR favorite campus novels? 

67 comments | Comment

67 comments

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  1. Leanne says:

    Dear Mr. Knightley is definitely my favorite Reay novel. I re-read it every year. Also, I think you have finally convinced me to read Crossing to Safety – it’s been on my TBR list for a long time.

  2. Libby Miner says:

    No more talk about back to school! Its still summer here in Maine! And school starts in about a week in a half to two weeks! :..)
    Anyway, I just finished The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell. Its subtitle is A Novel of the Last Bronte. And yes, it takes place on a campus, the Old College, Oxford. Its a bit of literary criticism, mixed in with fan fiction, and a student/professor love story. Its brillant. That’s all I’m saying. If you love the Brontes, read this book. It’s fun and strange and wonderful all at once. I hope you like it!
    Another very interesting book that is an aside to this blog because it doesn’t take place on campus but is a memoir written by a professor is All Roads Lead to Austen: A Yearlong Journey with Jane by Amy Elizabeth Smith. Maybe I’ve mentioned it before? This book chronicles the year when Smith took her work on the road to South America and led Jane Austen book clubs all around the continent. Its a wonderfully quirky read that intertwines Smith’s personal journey to love with her book club and teacher-like adventures among South American readers.

    • Cat says:

      I came here to add The Art of Fielding and I am Charlotte Simmons and was beaten to the punch on both accounts. I second your choice!

  3. Beth says:

    I’m currently reading The Likeness! This spring I read the Female Persuasion. It was okay.

    I would add Fan Girl by Rainbow Rowell. A great story about acclimating to college.

  4. Sarah K says:

    Gaudy Night and Crossing to Safety are two of my all-time favorites. But the most influential campus novel I’ve read in my life might be Anne of the Island, which portrayed intelligent young women in college in a way that made the teenaged me long to be a college student. (It also contains one of my favorite literary marriage proposals, with the line about having a dream of a cozy little house with a cat, a dog, the footsteps of friends—“and YOU”. )

  5. nanne says:

    Tam Lin by Pamela Dean. It’s based on the Scottish legend of Tam Lin but set on a fictional, picture perfect Midwestern college campus (pretty much the author’s alma mater, Carleton College in Minnesota) in the 1970’s.

    There’s a little supernatural and a lot of campus description, college life, the ups and downs of young adults that age mixed in with earnest discussions of Shakespeare, Homer, the Romantic poets, etc. The college campus itself is vividly and beautifully brought to life by the author. I hated the book the first time I read it but once the next September rolled around, I picked it up again as I wanted to capture that nostalgic, college feeling. This time I fell in love with it & now read Tam Lin every year when the leaves begin to turn and the students start back to school.

  6. Louise says:

    No one has yet mentioned Stoner, by John Williams! My favourite novel of 2013 – I burst into tears at my book club meeting because without them I might never have read it. And how about Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon? And Straight Man, by Richard Russo – I read SM on a plane and must have irritated everyone around me with my inability to stop laughing!

  7. I love your site and podcast and books—but rarely comment. I’m motivated to because I just finished a little known novel that I think you would LOVE. It’s called Years of Grace. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1931, written by a woman (Margaret Ayers, I think), and is set in Chicago. It’s a bit like the midwestern Edith Wharton meets Crossing to Safety—it follows Jane Ward from age 14 to 55. While it reveals the extreme prejudices of the pre-WWII era, it is still a fascinating look at how the city and culture were changing at the turn of the century and a smart young woman’s perspective on the loves of her life. A small section takes place at Bryn Mawr, so it sort of fits the campus novel but I hope you’ll look for it.

  8. A subversive addition would be Porterhouse Blue by Tom Sharpe. Porterhouse is the thinly disguised Peterhouse College, Cambridge, known as a stuffy, all-male institution; the Blue, traditionally the highest sporting honour given at Cambridge, is here given to members who eat and drink themselves into having a stroke. The plot follows the battle between a new, modernizing Master (head) and the traditionalists. But be warned – the humour is very, ahem, broad 🙂

  9. wendy says:

    Straight Man by Richard Russo. It is both funny and sadly accurate in describing the experiences of college professors. My husband, a professor, said it was just a bit too close to home.

  10. Terry says:

    Goodbye Mr. Chips by James Hilton. One of the reviewers over at Goodreads said it best:”A simple, beautiful and very moving tale of a life well-lived.” How an unassuming teacher becomes the heart and soul of an English school. Lovely. I need to reread it, now that I think about it.

  11. Ruth says:

    For hilarious campus satire I highly recommend ‘Moo’ by Jane Smiley (and if you love ‘Moo’, then you should also read ‘Horse Heaven’ but it’s not a campus novel). And ‘Straight Man’ by Richard Russo is a funny/serious novel about an academic at midlife.

  12. Suzanne says:

    Love this list! I would add “If We Were Villains” by M.L. Rio to the list. I read it earlier this year and really loved it. I described it to a friend as “King Lear” meets “St. Elmo’s Fire.” 🙂

  13. Terry says:

    Also, Rookery Blues and Dean’s List by Jon Hassler, my very favorite author. These are both set on a small Midwestern campus. Rookery needs to be read first, then Dean’s List. While they sort of stand alone, they concern some of the same people, so best read in order.

    Hassler was a career, classroom English teacher. His great gift is character invention/development. All his books are worth reading. He is the only author I have ever sent a fan letter to, and he answered it! He died in 2008 and I’m still sorry about it.

  14. Leslie says:

    Maybe because I am currently reading the book right now, I would have to add to the list Julie Schumacher’s The Shakespeare Requirement and her previous book Dear Committee Members.

  15. I just read My Oxford Year and would recommend The Royal We if you want something similar. The Secret History and The Likeness are both two of my all-time favorites. And I will echo what others have said about Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. It handles college jitters really well. I also think for a change of pace, The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy is really good.

  16. Fiona says:

    Stoner by John Williams and The Professors House by Willa Cather. Both are quiet thoughtful but strong novels and brilliantly portray relationships in a campus setting.

  17. Torrie says:

    I’ve read about half of these—lots of stuff to love! And Crossing to Safety is literally one of the best novels I’ve ever read, and it’s one of the few fictional reads I’ve given out five stars to in the past few years. Such a good one!

  18. Allison Turner says:

    I am a huge fan of the campus novel! Thank you for the list. One of my favorites is Old School by Tobias Wolff…tons of literary allusions.

  19. Denise P says:

    In the “Tell Me Anything” section of your survey, I was going to write, “I like your blog because you never mention Nicholas Sparks. (I’ve read 2 of his books and detested them both. How does that man sell so many books?)But then you went and blew it with your remarks about My Oxford Year. 🙂 I was going to put it on my TBR list until that last sentence of the description.

  20. Teresa says:

    I am dyslexic so I “read” audiobooks. I have been an Audible subscriber for over ten years and regularly download from my public library through Overdrive. Audible was having a sale, and I’m a mystery fan. I bought “The Godwulf Manuscript” by Robert B. Parker because I had never read one of his books. The plot involves a murder and a theft on a college campus. The reader was appropriately snarky/sarcastic. Not far into it, I was laughing out loud at the descriptions of some of the students. I thought, “How old is this?” When I looked it up, I saw that this was the first Spenser mystery published in 1973. *I* was in college in 1973! This wasn’t the best mystery I had ever read, but it certainly was a delightful romp. I laughed so many times at the descriptions of clothing and student life. It was a flashback, Man!

  21. Tracie says:

    I would add Jane Smiley’s Moo (a mix of hilarious, touching, and eccentric) and on a completely different note, Surprised By Oxford: A Memoir (Carolyn Weber). There are so many interesting titles out there!

  22. Joy says:

    I’m reading Crossing to Safety for the first time and listening to the Close Reads podcast as they discuss it each week. I am loving this book and can’t believe I’ve never read Stegner before.

  23. thegirlintheafternoon says:

    Lots of great recommendations here, but this comment really bummed me out: “Fanfiction stinks, but this is the exception.” Fanfic might not be for you, but I’d be willing to bet lots of your listeners enjoy it.

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