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by Kaitlin McManus | September 16, 2020

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No matter what college you go to or how long you’ve been there, campus is a special place. It’s where our friends live, where we learn so much about the world and ourselves, and it represents more freedom than most students had before arriving. But a college campus is, right now, perhaps not the safest place for us to be. Many students have returned to campus virtually, which is definitely the safest option, but it cuts out the heart of the college experience—going to college. So, I gathered up my 10 favorite campus novels that I turn to when I get nostalgic for my college days, in the hopes that they might provide an escape to campus, even if you can’t be there in person.

Bunny – Mona Awad

Let’s start off with the creepy: Heather despises her creative writing cohort. They are simultaneously teacher’s pets, transgressive, and insular—also, they all call each other “bunny.” So, of course, she ends up deep in their world. This book is like if The Heathers roomed with Trainspotting freshman year. And, as someone with an MFA in fiction, let me just say that this scared the heck out of me.

Ninth House – Leigh Bardugo

Alex Stern arrives at Yale and immediately feels out of place. She’s arrived on scholarship after a horrific tragedy, on the condition that she observe the school’s secret societies (which, let’s be real, are more of an open secret). But what she finds is much darker and spookier than she ever thought.

Sweet Days of Discipline – Fleur Jaeggy

This slim little book packs a big punch—a girl’s school in midcentury Switzerland becomes the setting of a story of obsession and control. Eve and the new girl, Fréderique, become fast friends—too fast—in this beautifully unsettling novel. A literary classic among those in the know.

The Incendiaries – R.O. Kwon

Phoebe and Will’s romance starts off intense, and only gets more so. But as Phoebe is drawn into an on-campus cult, led by a man whose experience includes time in North Korea, Will finds himself headed there with her. His resistance to fundamentalism and an act of violence propel their relationship into one of the strangest—and most compelling—that I’ve read in the past few years.

Normal People – Sally Rooney

Now a popular show on Hulu, millennial writer Sally Rooney’s sophomore effort follows two friends—and later, more—as they navigate the perils of shifting selves at Trinity College. It’s not a replacement for studying abroad, but it’s still excellent.

Gaudy Night – Dorothy L. Sayers

Sayers is a classic mystery author, and Gaudy Night is one of her best-acclaimed books. An ode to Oxford University all wrapped up in a tale of mayhem and murderous intent, this is perfect for anyone who spent their summer exhausting all the shows that BBC has to offer.

Prep – Curtis Sittenfeld

Ah, boarding school. It was either your dream or your nightmare as a kid, right? Prep is Sittenfeld’s debut, and it centers around Lee, who at first is new to her boarding school, then takes a place at its peak, and loses it—all in the span of four years. A perennial favorite in the genre and for good reason.

The Secret History – Donna Tartt

Often touted as the ultimate campus novel—and, in my experience, a shocking number of people’s all-time favorite book—Donna Tartt’s tale of on-campus mystery and intrigue made a huge splash when it came out. It’s a bit of a doorstopper, but her lyrical prose brings the campus—and its secrets—to life.

Chemistry – Weike Wang

The narrator of Chemistry seems to have it all figured out—she’s steps away from her Ph.D. and her boyfriend just proposed. But she’s burnt out, can’t find the meaning in her work that she used to, and wonders if she’s doing all of this for herself or to make her parents proud. This book is short, honest, and relatable—what more could you want?

Black Chalk – Christopher J. Yates

Another Oxford book! This one is newer than Sayers’ foray, however, and perhaps more relatable. Six friends play a game during their freshman year—it’s silly, although a prudent person would call it dangerous, but it was only supposed to be fun. Until the stakes got too high. Years later, the remaining members of the group come back to campus for a final round.

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