The best campus novels for the 21st century

Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg Author Of The Nine
By Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg

The Books I Picked & Why

Prep

By Curtis Sittenfeld

Book cover of Prep

Why this book?

This novel’s brilliance and unique female perspective wedged its way into my sensibility as a writer, stoking my desire to tell stories from unexpected voices. Set on a small Massachusetts campus and told from the perspective of a teenage girl who leaves her family behind in Indiana, Prep not only sends you back into the angst of adolescence but is an indoctrination into boarding school rites and rituals. Young Lee Fiora, a scholarship student with outsider status, spends three years earning respect, academically and socially, at the school. There is a price, however, and the saddest of those is a distancing from her family. I love this book’s exploration of class and teenage ambition, what teenage girls do for popularity, and the inept manner in which adults try to participate. Plus, it’s Curtis Sittenfeld’s debut novel!


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Around Harvard Square

By Christopher John Farley

Book cover of Around Harvard Square

Why this book?

Speaking of outsiders, Around Harvard Square follows a superstar student-athlete from small-town USA who assumes he’s made it big when he’s admitted to Harvard University. However, as a young, Black man, Tosh Livingston soon discovers the ways in which he does not belong and finds that admissions committees aren’t the only gatekeepers. This novel really digs deep into issues of race and class, insiders and outsiders. And while the topics feel timely, they are also timeless—not only in the world at large but also in that microcosm, the campus. There have always been those who are kept out and always those with special access, such as legacies and athletes. The protagonist in this novel also comes up against a secret society, an underground facet of campus life and the epitome of exclusivity, which really set my own creative juices in motion. Funny and fast-paced, this novel epitomizes a protagonist’s struggle to learn the secret handshake.  


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Plain Bad Heroines

By Emily M. Danforth, Sara Lautman

Book cover of Plain Bad Heroines

Why this book?

Another secret society lies at the heart of Plain Bad Heroines, a novel I love for its mix of moody darkness and incisive wit. Picture Brookhants, a long-abandoned boarding school for girls in Little Compton, Rhode Island, haunted by the legends of obsessions and secret rites and yes, death. The book weaves together two narratives: one tracing the development of deep friendships, jealousies, and love triangles at Brookharts in the early 1900s, the other picking up a century later as a Hollywood film crew travels to the school to make a movie inspired by its macabre history.

New England old-money types come face to face with A-list celebrities and social media influencers—and have more in common than you would think. While I enjoyed this book’s characters and setting immensely, I would have read Plain Bad Heroines for the language alone. Full of punch and wit, it is a courageous piece of writing, a six-hundred-word novel, written with a nod to the gothic, harkening Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, and George Eliot in its omniscient voice and unabashedly addressing the reader throughout. Who can’t applaud an author like Emily M. Danforth for taking all that on!


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Testimony

By Anita Shreve

Book cover of Testimony

Why this book?

One of Anita Shreve’s lesser-known novels, I love Testimony for the contemporary conundrum it introduces. No more sweeping things under the rug; administrations must deal with transgressions in a public manner. In Testimony, students at another New England boarding school behave badly, capturing a lewd act on film. No matter how you code it, a crime has been committed, and the school must deal with it.

While the novel explores multiple points of view, the perspective of the accused student’s mother had the greatest effect on me: “You stand up… You get into your car and back out of your driveway and make the turn onto the street and immediately a new set of pictures darts in front of you like small boys on bicycles. Rob in a helmet on a skateboard… A boy with a bad haircut holding up his Cub Scout handbook…” The second-person technique wonderfully conveys a worried mother’s out-of-body experience as she rushes to be by her child’s side, a child she is furious with, but loves nonetheless.


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This Beautiful Life

By Helen Schulman

Book cover of This Beautiful Life

Why this book?

A painful examination of all that’s at stake when kids make bad decisions, This Beautiful Life made me reflect on the pressure contemporary kids feel to be beyond reproach while growing up amid the instant connectivity and permanent consequences of the internet age. Like Testimony, Schulman’s novel begins with a video, this time one whose ramifications are amplified and complicated as it goes viral in a matter of hours.

A gripping early scene dramatizes the split second when fifteen-year-old Jake Bergamot makes the fateful choice to forward a video he’s received to a friend. The scandal that ensues threatens not only Jake, but his entire family’s “beautiful life.” Rather than a boarding school, this novel is set at an elite Manhattan private school where the social strata among parents are even more painfully felt. As the story unfolds, this book takes readers even deeper into the mom’s head—a delightful place where wit and satire know no bounds—and explores the maternal experience that what happens to our children, happens to us as well.


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