Fall in Boston means pumpkin spice Dunkin’ and buzzing campuses. Whether you’re heading back to the classroom yourself or waxing nostalgic about long-ago school days, here are 10 novels steeped in campus atmosphere.
Some of these titles are newer, some a little older, because as #BookTok — the TikTok hashtag for all things reading-related — has taught us, older books can become new bestsellers and any book can be your next great read. Barnes & Noble even keeps a running #BookTok hits section on its site.
Sally Rooney’s “Normal People.” If you know the story of Connell and Marianne only from the hit Hulu series, read (or reread) the 2019 novel, already a modern campus classic. Rooney sits atop many college students’ lists of favorite authors these days, and in “Normal People,” her characters search for meaning in social circles, society at large, religion, writing, art, and relationships, as they learn to navigate adult life. The novel is a touching reminder of a time when, awkward as those years may have been, our minds were on fire with new ideas.
Read this before it hits the small screen: “Straight Man,” by Portland, Maine’s Richard Russo, is in development for an AMC series, starring Bob Odenkirk and Mireille Enos (“The Killing.”) Set for a 2023 release, it’s got a dream-team: Aaron Zelman (“The Killing”) and Paul Lieberstein (“The Office”) adapt, with Rhode Island’s Peter Farrelly slated to direct, according to AMC. In his 1998 novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Russo tells the hilarious tale of William Henry Devereaux Jr., chair of the English department having a mid-life crisis at an underfunded Rust Belt college. Odenkirk seems perfectly cast.
“Vladimir,” by Julia May Jonas. This steamy 2022 novel revolves around the sex lives of professors. The unnamed narrator teaches English at a small liberal arts college; her husband, who is also a colleague, is facing #MeToo accusations. As more students come forward, our narrator dreams of Vladimir, a younger (married) novelist on campus. Things get complicated — then explosive.
In recent years, dark academia has emerged as a popular campus novel sub-genre. While they may not be warm commercials for college life, they’re total page-turners. Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History,” a 1992 Pulitzer Prize winner and international bestseller, is considered the archetype. The nutshell: Six friends at a small liberal arts college in Vermont commit murder. Hard to believe this one’s not a movie.
The New England-set critically acclaimed bestseller “Ninth House,” by Leigh Bardugo, was a 2019 fantasy hit, and is a 2022 #BookTok sensation. Bardugo’s magical mystery centers on Yale’s secret societies. It’s also the first of the Alex Stern books — a sequel is slated for early ‘23. #SpringSemesterRead
The gothic “Catherine House,” by Elisabeth Thomas, was one of the buzziest novels of 2020. Catherine House is a distinguished school, with high-flying alumni. The catch? For three years, students are utterly disconnected from the outside world, even their family. Student Ines Murillo begins to suspect that Catherine House is hiding something…
“The Maidens,” Alex Michaelides’s 2021 follow-up to his 2019 mega-hit “The Silent Patient” (a #BookTok hit) had me glued. Edward Fosca, a handsome and charming Greek tragedy professor, is a popular prof at Cambridge University — he may also be a murderer. He surrounds himself with female students, dubbed “The Maidens.” When one dies, protagonist Mariana is convinced Fosca did it.
The New England-set “Bunny,” by Mona Awad, is another buzzy #BookTok read, this one revolving around students in an MFA program at a New England university. Margaret Atwood summed it up succinctly when she tweeted: “Jon. Swift+Witches of Eastwick+ Kelly ‘Get In Trouble’ Link+ Mean Girls + Creative Writing Degree Hell! No punches pulled, no hilarities dodged…”
Speaking of creative writing programs: “The Plot,” Jean Hanff Korelitz’s 2021 suspense thriller concerns an MFA program writing teacher, the student who pitches him the perfect plot for a can’t-miss hit — and what happens when the teacher steals it… (Read it and loved it? Try Korelitz’s ‘22 hit: “The Latecomer.”)
For good measure, I’ll throw this middle-reader in the mix. If Harry Potter counts as a campus novel, and I’d argue it does (#BecauseHogwarts), this campus-set middle-reader is the only one I’ve read that has come close to that same level of Potter magic. Just a wonderful, well plotted, and charming read set at an island school made of treehouses where students learn the art of unicorn riding. Whatever allure Potter had, “Skandar and the Unicorn Thief,” by A.F. Steadman, has it too. The 2022 middle-reader fantasy is the first in a planned five-book series and a reminder that school can be an adventure.