The best nostalgic fiction set in UK and US boarding schools

Who am I?

I went to four different boarding schools when I was younger, which at the time didn’t seem weird but it definitely is. I think boarding schools are peculiar places, full of teenagers with raging hormones, secret homesickness, and a certain sort of reckless swagger that is a recipe for all sorts of drama i.e. the perfect setting for a novel. I was on quite hefty scholarships and know how lucky I was to be there, but whether you have or haven’t been to boarding school, there is an endless fascination with them. I had a lot of fun writing The Islanders, wallowing happily in my nostalgia and reminiscing with old friends about what we got up to.

I wrote...

The Islanders

By F.J. Campbell,

Book cover of The Islanders

What is my book about?

One girl. Three boys.

Beautiful, rich, selfish Beth Atkinson is the undisputed queen of her new school and she won’t give that up just to be someone’s girlfriend. Her loyal friend Milo and the intense head boy Edward both try to change her mind, but it’s only when she meets gorgeous, charming Zack that she finally twigs what all the fuss is about. She’s in so deep with Zack, she can’t see until it’s too late that her careless choices affect everyone around her, wrecking the lives of her friends and propelling them all towards tragedy. 

The books I picked & why

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By Curtis Sittenfeld,

Book cover of Prep

Why this book?

This book is a brilliantly written, honest story set at a prestigious prep school (Ault) in the US. Its sometimes infuriating main character, Lee, doesn’t have a great time there and mostly it’s her own fault. But Lee is a scholarship girl and the unwritten rules of the privileged society she has just chosen to enter bewilder her. This is definitely a coming-of-age book for people who are already well into adulthood. At the end of the book, when real life crashes in on Lee, Sittenfeld writes a chapter that I could read over and over again. It’s so hauntingly true and wise in the way that you can only get by looking back at a sad period in your life later, when you’re happier.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

By E. Lockhart,

Book cover of The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

Why this book?

Another book about a misfit at a US boarding school. Frankie, our heroine, is sharp, possibly a criminal mastermind, and an ugly duckling turned pretty. At her school–Alabaster Prep–she gets in with a group of older boys and starts to undermine their secret prank society by outdoing them all, with (un)predictably disastrous consequences. This book is so much fun; adults and adolescents alike will love it. 

Almost English

By Charlotte Mendelson,

Book cover of Almost English

Why this book?

Marina is another scholarship girl (there’s a theme here) trying to escape her messy family life, but from the get-go, she feels like an outsider at her new boarding school, Coombe Abbey. At this school, everyone’s given a cruel nickname, but even worse is being so invisible you don’t have a nickname at all. Marina doesn’t cope well at all, and one of my favourite hilarious episodes is when she visits the beautiful, drafty, impossibly cool home of her boyfriend and has mortifying sex and a terrifying night-time poo. The ending had me in tears (but from laughter and sadness).

The Hotel New Hampshire

By John Irving,

Book cover of The Hotel New Hampshire

Why this book?

John Irving has written so many amazing books, but this is one of my favourites. The narrator, John Berry, seems relatively normal, but his family is about as eccentric as they come. They not only attend a private school in New Hampshire but also run a hotel in a former girls’ school nearby. Moving to Vienna, their lives are touched by tragedy, but the remaining family members “keep passing the open windows” and find their own kinds of happiness. A lovely, tragic, funny, heartbreaker of a book.

Never Let Me Go

By Kazuo Ishiguro,

Book cover of Never Let Me Go

Why this book?

Although mostly set in a mysterious boarding school called Hailsham, this novel isn’t about the school, or even what happened there. It’s set in a grim alternative version of England and isn’t for the faint-hearted (no pun intended). 

What a boarding school does to a child is seal them off from ‘real life’ and in this case, Hailsham represents a strange sort of safety; and the real world is devastatingly lethal for the narrator Kathy and her friends Ruth and Tommie.

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