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.
In the second of Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series, which can be read in any 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 taut psychological thriller that keeps you guessing till the end.
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 →
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 →
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 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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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?