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Starting college? Here are the best, new and classic, campus novels to read


by Lia Hynes
21st Aug 2018
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Given the available ingredients, it is little wonder that college based books have developed their own entire genre, referred to as the campus novel. Youth at its most gilded and yet most troubled. The intrigue, the insecurities, the class tensions, the lofty ideals of a life of academia, the leafy setting of an idyllic campus. The intensity of the friendships and relationships of that time of life.

It’s the stuff of plot structuring dreams.

Sally Rooney’s second book, Normal People, published at the end of this month, is a love story that begins in school but follows Connell and Marianne to Trinity College, Rooney’s former stomping ground. It is garnering reviews as glowing as that of her first novel, Conversations With Friends. For any prospective students beginning their college careers in the next few weeks the following is a list of some of the best, new and classic, campus novels.

Brideshead Revisited, Evenlyn Waugh’s dynastic novel which is takes place over the twenties, thirties and forties is not entirely located in Oxford, but the early scenes, which depict the burgeoning friendship between Charles Ryder and Lord Sebastian Flyte, occur there, and are amongst the most vivid of the book. Ryder is a middle-class Oxford student seduced by the aristocratic Flyte and his family. For a real treat, when hibernation-with-dvd-boxset-season kicks in, check out the 1981 television series starring Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews. It is one of the best TV adaptations of a classic novel of all time, as good as the book (a rare event), and at eleven episodes long should keep you going for a few weeks. Rich young things, tragically doomed heroes, star-crossed lovers, war; this one has it all.

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is considered a modern masterpiece for a reason. You will never get a chance to read this book (an easy contender in any list of top ten enjoyable reads of all time), for the first time again. Reserve a weekend to hibernate; once picked up, you will not want to put this down. As in the case of Brideshead Revisited, the narrative structure is that of an outsider, of a slightly lesser socio-economic background, dazzled by the new world he discovers at college, as represented by a group of privileged strangers. Richard’s narrative begins with the admission of a murder, then slowly reveals the events leading up to this occurrence. Steeped in Greek mythology, revolving around an intoxicatingly glamorous college clique, this is a classic of the genre.

I Am Charlotte Simmons is not Tom Wolfe’s best book (that would be The Bonfire of the Vanities, don’t let the tragically miscast movie put you off, the book is excellent), but it is a good read. Wolfe’s intention was to write the first great novel set amidst campus life written from the point of view of a student. In the process, he apparently spent time undercover on a college campus researching this work. The naive, academic Charlotte’s entry into a college life peopled with entitled sports stars and oversexed frat boys is something of a car crash. As is typical of Wolfe’s work, this is a story of American moneyed elites, and their inherent corruption.

Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy is a former New York Times bestseller. The tale of how two childhood friends, Benny and Eve, fare when they go to university in Dublin and meet the beautiful Nan Mahon, and the dashing Jack Foley, a doctor’s son, Circle of Friends is as enjoyable and cosy as any of Binchy’s novels. Two further takeaways from this book; Inistioge, the Kilkenny village where much of this was filmed, is well worth a visit, and the movie, despite the handicap of Chris O’Dowd’s awful attempt at an Irish accent, is always worth a revisit.

Zadie Smith’s On Beauty is loosely based on E.M.Forster’s classic Howard’s End. The narrative follows two rival academics and their families, depicting the petty jealousies and insecurities that bely the grandiose pretensions of academic life, but also examining issues of race and class through its many characters, using the cloistered world of an American east coast university (Smith spent time at Harvard as a visiting fellow).

Meg Wolitzer’s recent The Female Persuasion follows the life of Greer Kadetsky, and the effect that an encounter in college with a Gloria Steinem type figure has on the young heroine. It takes a gently satirical look at modern day feminism, but is also a story that will resonate with any woman finding her way in college, from initial uncertainty to finding one’s niche.