Campus Novels From A Different Perspective
Who manages to make it through the early days of autumn without, at some point, wanting to be whisked away to a college campus somewhere? Crisp air, crisp leaves, crisp pages. Knitwear. Ancient architecture. Cobblestones and learning. We want to feel it all, the early days of exploration, the lush descriptions, nascent experiences, and endless possibility. But odds are, we don’t actually want to go back and experience all the angst that comes with it, at least not personally. So we have campus novels. Lots of campus novels.
Celebrating the release of her own brilliant campus novel two years ago, author M.L. Rio wrote us a wonderful piece on unexpected campus novels – ones that aren’t A Separate Peace or The Secret History (as much as we love them). We love Rio’s list, particularly the options that free us from, to quote her, “campus novels that feel like an old-fashioned sausage-fest.” In that spirit this autumn, we’re coming back to you, sharing a few more campus novels off the beaten path. Both recent and backlisted, they are all however new to us, as we particularly set out to compose a list featuring something other than the typical straight male perspective, either through character or author. As the genre seems nowhere near dying down, we can only hope this side of the list grows with every academic season.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
Mostly taking place in 1930s Edinburgh, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a classic by one of Scotland’s most celebrated writers, Muriel Spark. The novella follows a group of “chosen” girls who study with Miss Jean Brodie at a young age and then remain under her influence all through their schooling, and the effects her lessons have on them thereafter. Haunting, chic, and darkly humorous, it’s both an autumnal school novel and a fantastic social satire, whether it intends to be or not. An immediate favorite.
Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
How many of us picked this up as a young teenager, thinking it was a YA novel, drawn in by the title and the familiar pink and green belt? I don’t know exactly how Prep ended up in my hands when I was 13, but I’m pretty sure my mom put it there, thinking it was destined for readers my age (she also handed me Crime and Punishment when I was 12 but wouldn’t let me watch The Princess Diaries 2 because she thought it might be inappropriate, so I think “hit or miss” is an important concept here). It’s safe to say that Prep was not meant for 13 year old readers. Traumatizing for young teens though it may be, Prep is a fantastic book telling the story of Lee Fiora, a young student from South Bend, Indiana who decides to get away from her Midwestern life and family and enroll in an elite boarding school in New England. There she is faced with the unknown and unexpected, suddenly surrounded by students who live very different lives. Curtis Sittenfeld is a favorite contemporary writer, able to spin relatability and wit into thoughtful writing, and Prep is very much a bildungsroman.
Bunny by Mona Awad
The campus novel of the year, as far as the Attic is concerned. Bunny came out earlier this summer and became our very welcome out-of-this-world, madness-inducing read of the season. The novel takes place over the course of the second and final year of an MFA program at a fictitious New England university and is a little Heathers, a little Secret History, and even a little Alice in Wonderland. In it, the main character, Samantha goes from being an outsider to joining a group of classmates who host soirées and seemingly live their lives solely for the sake of fiction, while only ever referring to each other as “Bunny.” Overwhelming friendships, incantations, romance, and surreal horror ensue.
(You can read more about Bunny from Attic writer Rachel Tay here.)
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
A different kind of campus novel, conscious of its time. Published in 2017 but taking place in the 1990s, Elif Batuman’s The Idiot lives up to many tropes of the genre – it has its impressionable heroine; its majestic New England campus (here, Harvard); its notable friendships, and its questionable love interest, as eager to influence as the heroine is to learn – but it does so in a very time-specific manner. While Selin, the novel’s protagonist, attends Harvard and travels the world, most of the action integral to the plot happens over email. While the setting of the novel offsets it from the current day, its focus on the emotion and depth that can develop through a keyboard and over a screen renders The Idiot even more powerful.
(You can read more about The Idiot at the Attic on Eighth here.)
The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon
What if in case of getting caught up with each other’s drama, the characters of a campus novel got caught up in religious cults and politics instead? The official summary of R. O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries describes it as a “powerful, darkly glittering novel of violence, love, faith, and loss” and it’s impossible to sum it up any better. The story of Phoebe Kim and Will Randall, The Incendiaries follows the characters as they fall in love and then fracture when Phoebe deals with the loss of her mother by joining a violent, extremist cult that masks its political views as religious values. Murder, romance, and influence play central roles in this novel, but nothing about The Incendiaries is expected or typical of any genre.
The Lessons by Naomi Alderman
Despite the familiar, gilded trappings of most campus novels — hallowed university grounds, a talented circle of good-looking youth, that lost newcomer, and the wealthy, immoral eccentric just waiting to corrupt even the purest of us — The Lessons is particularly relatable amongst the genre. There is no murder, no ritualistic sacrifice; only life, and the true sacrifices that perhaps come with it. Alderman attended Oxford after all, the large, foreboding setting that brings our characters together, and wanted to write a story that realistically captured its undergrad experience. Sure, there are parties and tragedies and living recklessly but there is also the effort, the isolation, the fear of failure that comes when studies are all that keep anybody moving forward. But as we all know, education lives in more places than impenetrable youth, and so the novel follows a total of fourteen years in the lives of its glittering group, from their first days at Oxford through to their scattered, anticlimactic adulthoods and the event whose aftermath finally forces them apart. Over so many years and relationships, its depictions of longing and complex religious beliefs draw comparisons to that other Oxford novel, Brideshead Revisited, and luckily in its impact, though perhaps woefully in that painful regard, it doesn’t disappoint.
Olivia Gündüz-Willemin is Editor-in-Chief of The Attic on Eighth. She is dedicated to reading her way through the world and trying to stay as calm as possible.
Raquel Reyes is Creative Director at The Attic on Eighth. She enjoys styling photo shoots, dramatic hair accessories, and old fashioned cocktails.