There may still be a month of summer holidays left, but I’d imagine many of my readers are preparing to return to school in the fall. Whether you’re starting your freshman year of university or entering your last year of graduate studies, the beginning of the school year always feels like a time of anticipation and possibility. I’ve always thought college campuses were incredibly atmospheric, and that the inter-student dynamics make them the perfect setting for mysterious, creative novels.
In the spirit of returning to school I’ve made a list of my favourite campus novels. These books will either make you excited to return to school, or nostalgic for the days when you had to pack up your bags and move back to campus. Some of them might even make you think differently about the campuses you’ve lived and studied on.
Normal People by Sally Rooney (Faber & Faber, 2018)
In her Man Booker-nominated sophomore novel, Irish novelist Sally Rooney follows two Trinity College students as they navigate their relationship against a back drop of class difference, social pressure and rapidly evolving technology. Marianne and Connell are, as the novel’s title suggests, two normal people who become wrapped up in the world of education and enlightenment around them and have to fight to preserve the friendship they’ve cultivated over the years. Read my full review of Normal People here.
The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker (Random House, 2019)
In her lyrical, poetic sophomore sci-fi novel, Karen Thompson Walker takes us to the campus of a California university just as the school year is beginning. A bizarre illness, which causes its sufferers to fall into a sleep from which they can’t be woken, is spreading across campus, leaving students, previously basking in the haze of newfound freedom, terrified and frustrated. In her ethereal prose, Thompson Walker perfectly captures the anticipation and magic of starting a new life in a new place with new people. Read my full review of The Dreamers here.
Bunny by Mona Awad (Viking, 2019)
In this terrifyingly hilarious take on female friendship, author Mona Award transports readers to the campus of Warren University, an elite East Coast school with one of the best MFA programs in America. Samantha Heather Mackey, a writer entering her last year of graduate studies, has been at odds with the girls in her program – a group of bubbly, bizarre women who refer to one another as “Bunny” – since starting school. After finding herself inevitably wrapped up in their strange rituals, Samantha comes to realize just how problematic their behaviour really is. Read my full review of Bunny here.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt (Knopf, 1992)
Pullitzer Prize-winning author Donna Tartt brings a college campus to life in her mythology-infused novel about a group of classic’s students who become wrapped up in a series of dangerous events that eventually lead to murder. Looking back on his past, narrator Richard Papen examines the circumstances that led to his involvement in the crime. The Secret History offers a close look at class difference on university campuses, and at the kind of ritualistic, cult-like behaviour that can arise when a group of young people feels incredibly passionate about a subject.
The Red Word by Sarah Henstra (ECW Press, 2018)
Universities, while undoubtedly places of higher learning and enlightenment, can also be cesspools for bad behaviour. In her passionate, riveting novel The Red Word, Sarah Henstra shines a light on the difficulties women face on college campuses. When a young woman moves into a house full of feminists and women’s studies majors, she doesn’t realizes that she’s about to be dragged into the middle of a war between her new housemates and the fraternity in which her boyfriend is deeply involved. The Red Word’s vivid characters and climactic ending will stay with you for weeks after you’ve finished reading. Read my full review of The Red Word here.
The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer (Riverhead, 2018)
A freshman in college, Greer Kadetsky is starstruck when she meets professor Faith Frank, a pillar of the women’s movement for decades. When Faith invites Greer to work with her, Greer finds herself pulled away from her relationship with her boyfriend and all of the things she’s always thought she wanted. The Female Persuasion is a story about a young woman’s desire to be admired, and the complex relationship between womanhood and ambition.
Black Star by Maureen Medved (Anvil Press, 2018)
A philosopher and professor on the brink of publishing a second book and securing tenure, Del Hanks is overwhelmed by fear, social isolation and apprehension about aging. She finds herself incredibly jealous of a young faculty member named Helene who has just published her first book to widespread acclaim. Black Star follows Del as her mental state declines, exploring the female experience in academia and the all-encompassing desire for power of a woman who came from almost nothing.