Crisp campuses and adolescence angst
Even though it’s already time for midterms, it never quite feels like back-to-school season until the cooler weather arrives, which, fingers crossed, is happening right about now. To properly celebrate the season (and pretend like we actually have full seasons in Austin, instead of a few short and random bursts of fall weather) we rounded up some of our all-time favorite books set in schools and on campuses.
Besides flannels, chunky boots and bobbing for Honeycrisp apples, nothing feels more appropriate for this rare and glorious weather than the drama, romance and timelessness of a story set on a campus. We think there’s a certain kind of spooky mysteriousness to school settings too, which makes these books perfect for the month of October. And most importantly, when the weather inevitably reverts back to hot and sticky, you’ll still be so lost in the ivy-covered grounds and screeching chalkboards of these novels, you’ll barely even notice the temperature rise.
My Education, Susan Choi
It’s not necessarily a new story line — Regina, a young female graduate student, is drawn romantically to a revered professor — but the conventional setting and plot don’t really matter in My Education, because the book is a near perfectly executed work of fiction. Choi writes sizzling sex scenes (a rare thing to do well) and the characters are so strongly drawn they keep you reading way past your bedtime just to see what happens. The book has sometimes been categorized as “lesbian fiction” which isn’t really accurate. It’s about crazy, reckless love careening off the tracks, which is pretty applicable to any gender pairing.
Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld
Set at an elite East Coast boarding school where "money was everywhere on campus, but it was usually invisible," Prep is chockfull of classic high school stereotypes —mean girls with perfect blonde hair, lacrosse games played on pristine grass and cute boys leaning up against old brick buildings. As we watch Lee Fiora, a scholarship student from South Bend, Indiana, navigate through four years at boarding school, we are asked to examine larger themes of race, class and gender. Sittenfeld expertly gives a voice to the alienation and angst of adolescence, while spinning a thrilling story that’s hard to put down.
The Fever, Megan Abbott
No one writes disturbing high school stories quite like Abbott (see: Dare Me, 2012). Her latest novel, The Fever, set in the spooky, northeastern town of Dryden, ("the cloudiest city in the state"), is brilliant and chilling. As high school girls become inflicted with seizures — collapsing on stage during orchestra recitals and seizing in the middle of class — protagonist Deenie wonders what’s causing them and if she’s next. Abbott takes you into the minds of young people in such a keenly intelligent, skilled way, reading The Fever will bring you right back to the newness and uncertainty of your own high school experiences and mysteries, whatever they were.
A Secret History, Donna Tartt
Before Tart’s knockout novel The Goldfinch (winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) came her first novel, A Secret History. With a quintessential campus setting (think ivy-covered brick buildings in Vermont); a murder; and a classic, charismatic professor, A Secret History has all the elements of a gripping school drama. Part psychological thriller, part coming of age story, it’s a treat to read the wildly talented Tartt establish her critically acclaimed voice in this debut novel.
Tampa, Alissa Nutting
Protagonist Celeste Price is a 26-year-old middle school teacher — and a total bombshell. She teaches eighth grade at Jefferson Junior High, drives a red Corvette and has a sexual obsession with 14-year-old boys. A scorching, gutsy novel that deals with a far more screwed up reality than most books, Tampa might make your skin crawl. It will also mesmerize you and is full of brilliant, crackling prose, dark humor and smart cultural commentary that propels you through. As Celeste lures her student Jack Patrick into a secret relationship, readers are disturbed and entertained, and given a chilling, impressive examination of want — and the motivations behind student/teacher affairs.
Franny and Zooey, J.D. Salinger
Because, duh. We wanted to give you a list that wasn’t predictable, but we also found it impossible to talk about the best fall-y, school scenes without including Salinger. Much like Salinger’s classic The Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey is driven by themes of teenage isolation and disaffection. It also serves up some of the most classic, October school scenes, starting with the very first sentence: "Though brilliantly sunny, Saturday morning was overcoat weather again, not just topcoat weather, as it had been all week and as everyone had hoped it would stay for the big weekend — the weekend of the Yale game." It’s a work from the classic Western canon, sure, but it’s a brilliant one that deserves to be reread often, especially when the weather starts to change.