Campus novels tend to have strong settings. These novels transport you into the sensory, emotional, and intellectual experience of attending college. If you had a pleasant time in college, these novels can tap into nostalgia. If you never went to college, campus novels offer a way to experience the setting vicariously. Many of us have a strong association between fall and the start of the academic year. Seeing the leaves change color might remind you of signing up for courses and purchasing school supplies. Hopefully these books will get you excited about the upcoming fall season.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Unlike a lot of other campus novels, Real Life by Brandon Taylor is set in graduate school. Wallace is pursuing a degree in biochemistry. A Black gay man, he struggles significantly due to the prejudices of his cohorts and advisor. The book focuses heavily on Wallace’s budding relationship with his friend Miller, who is white and “straight.” If you had a challenging experience in college, this book may make you feel less alone. Brandon Taylor deftly captures the complexity of friendship and racial dynamics in a way which is fully fleshed out and realistic. Real Life has been long listed for the 2020 Booker Prize. The writing style is stunning.
Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas
Catherine House is a campus novel set apart in many ways from the others on this list. Catherine House, the institution, boasts an array of famous and successful alumni. The lucky few who are accepted enjoy an experimental curriculum, free of charge. The education still comes at a price, however. Students are not permitted to venture outside of the intuition for three full years, including summers. Ines arrives at Catherine House ready to put partying behind her and focus on her schoolwork. Soon she is sucked into uncovering the school’s hidden agenda. Catherine House is an ideal choice if you want the strong setting of a campus novel, paired with the fast-paced plot of a mystery/thriller.
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
Elif Batuman’s The Idiot captures the intellectual feeling of attending college. Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, has just arrived at Harvard as a freshman. She develops a strange relationship with Ivan, a math student from Hungary. Their friendship evolves over email, which is new at the time. This novel is set in 1995. If you have been missing the rigorous critical thinking of school, The Idiot will provide much for you to ponder, all the while utilizing dry humor and a strong sense of place.
Sleepwalking by Meg Wolitzer
Sleepwalking is a dark, realistic campus novel. The three main characters, known around campus as the “death girls,” are drawn together by their obsession with dead poets. Each girl is obsessed with a different poet who died by suicide: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and the fictional Lucy Asher. Claire’s obsession goes a little too far when she decides to track down Lucy Asher’s parents in an attempt to get some closure on Lucy’s death. Meg Wolitzer’s debut novel is a gorgeous exploration of grief set against the backdrop of a college campus.
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Set in the early ’80s, The Marriage Plot revolves around Madeleine, an English major writing her senior thesis on the “marriage plot” she sees at the heart of so many novels. She quickly becomes intrigued by Leonard, a student in her semiotics seminar. The two start a relationship which is equal parts romantic and intellectual. They spend much of the novel discussing the nature of love itself, reading Roland Barthes’s A Lovers Discourse. Meanwhile, an old acquaintance of Madeleine’s is dead set on convincing her to marry him.