It’s funny that no matter how old I get; the last week of August always has that back-to-school feeling. Maybe it’s a nostalgia for school days, a looking forward to darkening evenings, or just the urge to buy new stationery, but it’s a time of year that I love.
I’ve recently started an ARC of The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnston, a novel set in a wealthy California high school that is billed as Heathers meets Sweet Valley High and it got me thinking about my favourite books set in schools or universities. The campus novel is a genre that I love (I blame book No 1 on this list) and here are ten of my favourites.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
If you’ve been paying attention to this blog, you might have noticed the love I have for The Secret History, a strange, beautiful book featuring a cast of mysterious Greek scholars, pagan rituals, and murder. It is one of the books I have reread most in my life and one that I intend to read again and again.
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
Consistently named as one of the funniest books of all time, Amis’ brief debut novel is a comedy of errors centered around James Dixon, a junior professor at a provincial university. He rather hates it, though, and what’s more, can’t seem to stop fouling things up for himself. Featuring love triangles, campus intrigue and a hero who can’t stop messing things up for himself, Lucky Jim is a must read.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
Muriel Spark’s short but majestic novella centres on the romantic, enigmatic, comic and ultimately tragic schoolmistress Jean Brodie who initially dazzles her girls – the ones she considers ‘the crème de la crème’ – at Marcia Blaine School before succumbing to hubris and jealousy as the girls and Miss Brodie herself, bring about her downfall. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a technical masterpiece that is as funny as it is heartbreaking.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
I didn’t expect to like Chad Harbach’s 2011 novel The Art of Fielding, assuming it was a book about sport. It is, to some extent, a book about baseball, but it is also a classic campus novel about friendship, learning and love. The novel follows Henry Skirmshander, a genius shortstop who attends the fictional Westish College. What follows is essentially Henry’s coming-of-age story, as it charts his experiences on and off the baseball pitch.
Oleanna by David Mamet
I’m cheating a little by slipping a play in here, but Oleanna is a masterclass in exploring the dark side of academic politics, miscommunication and political correctness. Carol meets with her professor John because she is concerned about the fact that she is failing his class. John offers to bend the rules and give her an ‘A’ if she continues to meet with him on a one to one basis. The repercussions of that offer will be far-reaching for both characters and Mamet’s skill is one of ambiguity, with neither character coming out of the situation well.
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
This big-hearted, hilarious novel opens as its title suggests. Skippy is Daniel “Skippy” Juster, so nicknamed because of his unfortunate resemblance to a certain TV kangaroo. He’s a boarder at Seabrook College, an expensive Catholic school in Dublin, who dies during a donut eating contest with his best friend Ruprecht. What follows is a whirlwind of a novel, exploring how Skippy got to this point and what happens after his death and is a tragi-comedy that excels in both the tragedy and the comedy. Don’t let its 661 pages put you off, when you’re finished you’ll wish it was longer!
The Twins at St Clare’s by Enid Blyton
I may have loved Mallory Towers more, but The Twins at St Clare’s was the first book to foster that completely misguided wish in me to go to boarding school. The adventures of Pat and Isobel, the titular twins, made me think that boarding school life was one long series of midnight feasts, classroom pranks and lifelong friendships. My Dad went to boarding school in the 1950s in Ireland. Thankfully I had him to set me right!
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Never Let Me Go is the story of Kathy, Tommy and Ruth and the relationship they form together at Hailsham House – an unusual sounding boarding school which emphasises art, regular medical checkups and a sheltering from the real world. To say anymore would be to spoil the reveal for anyone who hasn’t read this beautiful, touching book, but Never Let Me Go shows just how much the school environment prepares people to be accepting and passive about the world around them. In that respect, it is a frightening novel.
The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis
The Rules of Attraction is a typically Bret Easton Ellis book. This is a kaleidoscopic novel about three students at a small, affluent liberal-arts college in New England with no plans for the future–or even the present–who become entangled in a curious romantic triangle. Bret Easton Ellis uses his sharp wit and keen ear for dialogue to show the moral vacuum at the centre of the lives of his characters who, ironically, seem to have everything.
Punk Rock by Simon Stephens
One more play to finish off my list, this time it is the blistering and shocking Punk Rock by Simon Stephens. Set in the library of a Stockport Grammar School, Punk Rock follows a group of students as they show off, flirt, revise and bully their way through their ‘A’ Level mocks. Coming across like Lord of the Flies set in a common room, Punk Rock perfectly evokes that twilight world between childhood and adulthood before exploding in a moment of shattering violence.
Now, doesn’t that just put you in the mood to go out and buy a new lunchbox and pencil case? Are any of your favourites on my book list? Any obvious choices I’ve forgotten?
The 746 backtoschool bret easton ellis david mamet donna tartt enid blyton kazuo ishiguro kingsley amis lucky jim muriel spark never let me go oleanna paul murray punk rock simon stephens skippy dies the prime of miss jean brodie the rules of attraction the secret history the twins at st clares
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!