9 campus novels that will totally make you want to go back to school.

9 campus novels that will totally make you want to go back to school.

If your days on campus are long behind you, have no fear: these 9 novels will give you the opportunity to revisit your school days through a fictional lens.

Some of these are old favorites of mine, some were summer reading picks, one I finally read just for this post. Some are YA, some literary fiction, some contemporary fiction. Some are set in high school, some in college, some stories are told from the professors’ point of view.

I’m looking forward to hearing your favorites in comments.

Campus novels that will make you want to go back to school
The Likeness

The Likeness

Author:

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.

More info →
The Royal We

The Royal We

This is your typical college love story: Nick and Bex are Oxford hallmates who become great friends eating junk food and watching bad tv in the wee hours when they're supposed to be studying. Except that Nick (think: Prince William) is heir to the British throne, and Bex is an American exchange student. This book will not make you feel smarter, wiser, or better read: it’s 100% Kate Middleton fan fiction, and it couldn’t be more fun. An entertaining reimagining of the royal fairy tale. More info →
Dear Mr. Knightley

Dear Mr. Knightley

Author:
A fresh update on Jean Webster's 1899 classic Daddy-Long-Legs. 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. More info →
All the Bright Places

All the Bright Places

Author:
The publisher describes this as The Fault in Our Stars meets Eleanor & Park, which sounds right to me. This is Niven's eighth novel, but her first for young adult readers, inspired by her friend's experience with mental illness and suicide. Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of their high school's bell tower. It's unclear who saves whom, but an unlikely friendship is born between the troubled bad boy and grieving good girl. But it's only a matter of time before things begin to fall apart. A heartbreaking story of love and friendship. 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. If you love this, go back and read all the Lord Peter mysteries, beginning with Whose Body? 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 lovely (and often melodramatic—brace yourself) depiction of an unusual friendship across many years, and a thoughtful exploration of the complexities of love, grief, and human nature. More info →
The Secret History

The Secret History

Author:
The story begins with a 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. The setting is a small Vermont college, the characters members of an isolated, eccentric circle of classics majors, who murder one of their own. Strongly reminiscent of The Likeness in setting, Crime and Punishment in plot, and Brideshead Revisited in tone. I finally read this last week, and now I understand why 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 →
Harry Potter Series

Harry Potter Series

Author:
Orphaned Harry Potter has no idea how famous he is until he turns 11 and receives his invitation to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which is exactly like any other British boarding school, but for the subject matter. The whole series is attuned to the rhythms of the school year. The audiobook versions, narrated by Jim Dale, are spectacular. More info →
Crossing to Safety

Crossing to Safety

Author:
Stegner forges a compelling story out of the lives of 4 ordinary people, who first come together at the University of Wisconsin Madison. There’s no way to describe this gorgeous novel that doesn’t make it sound dead boring. Don’t read about it; just read it. Superb writing, gentle pacing, and an adroit examination of friendship, love, and marriage. This is one to read again and again. More info →

What would you add to this list?

Cozy up with a campus-inspired novel this for back-to-school season. These picks will make you itching to register for classes, again.

84 comments | Comment

84 comments

  1. Ginger says:

    Oh, when I saw this blog post, I was hoping you had included Secret History after your tweet the other day. So creepy, and so compelling, just as you said. What a great list!

  2. Jamie says:

    It’s not quite the same, but Discovery of Witches came to mind. Both main characters are professors (of history and science, respectively)at prestigious colleges (Oxford and Yale). I loved reading about the interactions with and experience of their campuses from their perspectives, and the descriptions of the ancient, gorgeous buildings at Oxford (particularly the Bodlian library) was wonderful!

  3. I love Gaudy Night! It’s one of my favorite books! And – fun fact – my family and I got to go to England in the spring of 2014 and during four days in Oxford I reread Gaudy Night. So fun! I love books and movies that involve campuses, so I’m going to check out this whole list!

  4. I’ve been meaning to read Dear Mr. Knightley for awhile. It’s at the top of my list now! Also, I love Anne of the Island–Anne of Green Gables all grown up and off to college. It’s the book where she and Gilbert fall in love. Sigh.

  5. Jess says:

    I hope you share your thoughts on The Secret History in more detail. Are you in the camp likes it, or dislikes? I am in the dislike, both for this one and The Goldfinch. There has to be some sort of likable character or someone who at least redeems themselves. Life’s too short for books that lack that!

  6. Ciera says:

    I was trying to come up with a “campus” book to comment about, but realized I don’t think I’ve really read anything set on a campus–which is ironic since I just graduated from UW-Madison myself. I’ll have to give some of these a try. The Secret History looks particularly interesting since I took several Classics courses and people seem to have divided opinions!

  7. Stacey says:

    First thing that came to mind was the YA novel The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart.

  8. Janet says:

    I just finished Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner and I loved it. Before it I did a reread of Angle of Repose by him, such an incredible writer.

  9. Tim says:

    Yay for Gaudy Night! The whole Wimsey series is wonderful, but that one was particularly compelling. A good companion read would be Joesphine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes. It’s a mystery (and more literary than most, just as Sayers’ stories are) set at a girls’ boarding school and focuses on those who are soon to graduate. Lot’s of twists along the way that keep you wondering to the last pages.

  10. Shayne Johnson says:

    Definitely Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. I liked Attachements more but Fangirl made me long for college again.

  11. Kelly says:

    The Likeness is one of my favorite books! Love all Tana French but especially that one. Another of my favorite “campus” books is Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld. And also The Magicians by Lev Grossman <– Didn't love the characters but love the world he created.

    • Sherri says:

      I was reading the thread to see if Prep was mentioned. I agree about The Magicians. Also, Tam Lin by Pamela Dean is a fantasy novel that takes place on a college campus (a barely-disguised Carleton College in Minnesota.)

  12. It’s strange how little fiction is set among college students. It’s such an exciting time in many people’s lives that it seems like more authors would write about it. There are lots more books about high school than college.

    The Likeness doesn’t seem to me like an “on campus” novel at all. Lexie and her housemates are grad students, but the focus in not on campus and barely touches on what they’re doing for school–it’s all about their home life.

    One of my favorite books about high school–dated, but hilarious–is The Alfred G. Graebner Memorial High School Handbook of Rules and Regulations by Ellen Conford.

    • Anne says:

      I’m not familiar with that high school novel—thanks for sharing.

      (I thought about including French’s The Secret Place, which is a high school boarding-school novel, but really, I like The Likeness much more. 🙂 )

  13. Marie says:

    I’ve always loved The Secret History, and clearly I’m in the minority here but I find the characters extremely likeable.

    • Anne says:

      I know A Separate Peace (of course, shaking my head as I type because it is just so sad) but don’t know the other two. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Shonda says:

    I picked up Wonder the other day because I liked it so much and wanted to read again.
    Loved Crossing to Safety! Now I have more to put on my TBR list! Thanks for the recs.

  15. Emmy says:

    I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe; the Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray; and of course A Separate Peace by John Knowles. Highly recommend all of them!

    Thanks for this great list; I have such a soft spot for books that take place in boarding schools. 🙂

  16. Clémence says:

    I love Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster… It’s an older book but a really good one about an orphaned girl (and aspiring writer) who has to write letters to the mysterious philantropist who has sent her to college…

      • Melanie says:

        Daddy Long Legs is a favorite of mine from childhood! I have to read the re-make now. There is also Dear, Enemy (the sequel to Dear Daddy Long Legs) also by Jean Webster.

  17. Anna says:

    This is a great question. A Separate Peace by John Knowles makes me want to sharpen pencils and head to class!

  18. Emma says:

    I love Tana French and all of her books, the Likeness included. And I love that you added Harry Potter!! I have never heard of Falling Together, I will have to add that one to my list.

    Looking for Alaska by John Green is one I would add to this list (an oldie but a goodie!)

  19. Donna Goodman says:

    I would add to this list the Fairwick series by Juliet Dark, pseudonym for Carol Goodman. There are three in the series: The Demon Lover, The Water Witch and The Angel Stone. The series is sort of a grown-up version of Harry Potter. A recent Ph.D. grad is hired into a new faculty position and finds herself embroiled in a world of witches, fairies, and other magical creatures, and of course the struggle within that world between good and evil. Great read!

    • Abbey says:

      Love the Fairwick Series…really anything & everything by Carol Goodman. SO many of her novels are set on campuses, which I love. Can’t wait for her newest book coming out later this year, I think.

  20. Abbey says:

    Another great campus book is Conversion by Katherine Howe. Creepy and entertaining read. Started & finished in 24 hours this time last year, and I’m thinking of rereading it again soon.

  21. I know it’s not everyone’s favorite, but I loved Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. Probably because I was a fanfic writer myself back in the day. (Not famous like the protagonist, of course!)

    I also love Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy, which I think takes place mostly in high school and college if I remember right. It’s been a long time since I read it.

    Can Tartt not write likable characters? I hated everyone in The Goldfinch.

  22. I also love Tam Lin by Jane Yolen, which is about REALLY nerdy English majors in college in the 70s. It’s a fairy tale retelling and the ending is awful, but I still can’t resist all the bookishness.

  23. Heather says:

    Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. Quite possibly the funniest book ever. Certainly must be the funniest one set in a universitg The climactic scene is a lecture that goes hilarously wrong. I am laughing just thinking about it. Cannot recommend it enough. Do not let the central male character put you off, it is very relatable, I think, and rather interesting to read a 1950s novel and compare it to today.

  24. Amanda says:

    Back to school always reminds me of the book A Separate Peace. I read it in high school, and it’s a great coming of age story in boy’s boarding school.

  25. Hannah Beth Reid says:

    When I read the title of this post, I hoped “Dear Mr Knightley” would make the list! I love these themed lists!

  26. Alexa says:

    Susan R. Sloan (4 novels-2 with Amazon) write’s great satisfying mysteries. Unfortunately, I wish there were more. ” Guilt by Association ” was one of her best -awesome!!!!!! I loved the ending. It’s about time to read a unique and satisfying ending to a crime that never has justice. Yet, Ms. Sloan’s ability to pull it off was uncanny. I never saw coming or ever read anything like it. She tries to also keep you guessing. I know you hate guts, gore & vampires -but in both recommendations- No blood, gore or wait time so you can eat without feeling grossed out.

    Also, The Secret History-read -if you can in the autumn and when near school time starts.
    Advice: Don’t! do what I did and purchase the “audio ” of The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Ms. Tartt reads the whole novel & she wrote in a first person male young adult ( who comes across and reminds me of a Judy Blume coming-of-age-type), Richard Papin. For me to hear her southern female alto is a stretch , but I did get sucked into the story like a straw after the initial first scene and after that, I couldn’t stop. Total potato chip book. Even with her character named ” Bunny. “, I’m like, how am I going to take this seriously???
    Richard hates his cheap home, clothes and parents and fears he will end up like his dad. He trades his life for a group of snobbish Greek friends who do something that starts as as an innocent eccentric class at an preppy college in New England , (the professor accepts a $1.00 a year for tax purposes for his pay check) & who only tutors a very small number of elite, eccentric friends who end up committing several crimes that effect bank accounts, relationships, and become involved with two murders. The hook is how she brings our minds to places long forgotten in our past along with how they settle this deal with the mess they made. Along with it’s after effects. This book is a definite plus. Hope you read it Anne!

  27. Karen says:

    As I kid, I kept going back to an old story I stumbled upon/ “What Katy Did At School” by Susan Coolidge. Wonderful boarding school story.

  28. I wanted to read Crossing to Safety already, but now I really want to read it. I would also include “A Separate Peace”. I love stories that take place at New England boarding schools.

  29. Rachel Coy says:

    The campus novels by David Lodge are good fun – set in a 1980s British redbrick university. Also, A Very Peculiar Practice is a BBC series from the 1980s written by Andrew Davies who did the Pride and Prejudice adaptation with Colin Firth – there is also a book. Very funny and more than slightly odd!
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0090541/
    https://www.amazon.com/Very-Peculiar-Practice-Coronet-Books/dp/0340391146
    https://www.amazon.com/Campus-Trilogy-Changing-Places-Small/dp/0143120204/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1471363371&sr=1-1&keywords=david+lodge

  30. Katie Toungette says:

    A bit over a year later, just finished Crossing to Safety. I will admit to getting lost in the narrative in parts, only to be pulled right back in to the story with gusto. The last chapter I read twice, to keep it from ending. Great suggestion.

  31. Remembering my old days at school.Harry Potter series my personal favorite ,which I still have on my home’s book shelf and everytime I am home I love to read them again and again

Comments are closed.