Back to School: Campus Novels

shelved under Education, Fiction, and Beach Reads

Every year with the end of Summer students and faculty everywhere return to campus. If you're not fortunate enough to be one of them, you can still get that collegiate feeling by settling into a comfy chair with a good campus novel. There are plenty of them beyond this list, but these all have one thing in common: They evoke a sense of being at a particular kind of college at a particular point in time.


Tam Lin

by Pamela Dean, illustrated by Thomas Canty

This fantasy was the second book in Terri Windling's fairy tale series from the early '90s. Like the Scottish ballad it's based on, it tells the story of a young woman who must rescue her beloved from the world of faerie, but mainly, it's just a great novel about life on a Midwestern liberal arts campus (supposedly based on Carleton) in the early 1970s. It used to be very difficult to find this book with the beautiful Tom Canty cover, but now, thanks to Amazon Marketplace, copies of this edition are plentiful.



by Jane Smiley

Of the books on the list, this is the only one that you might not enjoy much if you've never worked at a university. It's a comic novel about a large Midwestern university (called, as a matter of fact, Midwestern University — MU, or Moo). The faculty are restlessly having affairs while the staff are diverting funds from the football team to the library, and in the meantime, a graduate student is doing some damn fine hog research. It's a little dated now, but it captures higher ed in the 1990s perfectly, and the intertwining story lines and huge cast of characters are completely entertaining.


Wonder Boys

by Michael Chabon

There are a lot of books out there about aging novelists with writer's block who teach at small colleges and are on a fast track to total ruin. The thing that makes Wonder Boys stand out — besides Chabon's skill as a novelist — is the humor. It's outrageous enough to be a Carl Hiaassen novel, but Chabon takes it to a completely different place. The movie is excellent, too, but not as fleshed-out and funny as the book.


Blue Angel

by Francine Prose

Another professor, another affair — my goodness, how do these people get any teaching done, let alone research? Like Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys, the protagonist, Swenson, has a substance abuse problem and an exceptionally talented student who isn't quite stable. But Swenson, never a particularly likable character, becomes even less likable as the book progresses. I know that probably doesn't sound like anything you'd want to read, and in the hands of a lesser artist than Francine Prose it might not be, but she makes it a spectacular train wreck.


Class Reunion

by Rona Jaffe

Yes, I really am going to follow up Blue Angel and Wonder Boys with Class Reunion, one of those epic novels of The Greatest Generation that were popular in the early '80s. It's the story of four girls who go off to Radcliffe in the '50s and go on to live interesting lives (or not), and then meet up again at their 25th college reunion. This was the first Rona Jaffe book I ever read, so at first reading I didn't realize that this is pretty much the plot of most of her books: three or four girls are thrown together by fate, then go off to live their separate lives, but are bound together by the common thread of womanhood or whatever. No matter. I still love Rona Jaffe, who in interviews always sounds like an eminently sensible person with a cynical side that comes out in her books. The portrayal of Radcliffe in the '50s in this one makes you wish you'd been there, despite the sexism and the unfair expectations and the general suckiness of being female during that time in U.S. history. It's kind of like Mad Men that way.


Love Story

by Erich Segal

Back to Radcliffe, but a few years later than Class Reunion: the late '60s. If you think this book is summed up by "love means never having to say you're sorry," then you probably haven't read it. It's the story of star-crossed lovers, a wealthy Harvard legacy and a local girl on scholarship. They meet, they fall in love, they get married, she dies. (The book is nearly 40 years old and mentions the dying part in its iconic first sentence, so I'm not really spoiling the ending.) But they also spend a lot of time hanging out on campus and bantering wittily. You can practically hear the leaves crunching underfoot while you're reading it.


The Secret History

by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt was the last of that literary Brat Pack of the '80s that included writers like Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz. Unlike their books, which tended to be about young adults in big cities who took a lot of drugs and had a lot of sex, The Secret History is set at a small college campus (probably based on Bennington), and features a lot of snow, atmosphere and obsession. It gives classics majors the kind of glamorous intrigue they hardly ever have in real life.