Five terrific campus novels

I’ve spent a fair amount of time recently thinking about college. Specifically these two questions: Why did Beverly Hills, 90210 (the original, people) get so dreadfully dull when the gang went to college? And why are there so many novels about academics but so few about college students? 

While I’m still contemplating the 90210 question, I’m happy to report that this has been a banner year of reading for me, with my two favorite novels of the year (The Art of Fielding and The Marriage Plot) having campus settings. And not the standard run-of-the-mill publish-or-perish or associate-professor-denied-tenure set up; but real college novels, with undergraduates and roommates and dining halls, as well as professors. If you’re looking for a grown-up novel that takes you back to school, try one of these:

  • The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach: A baseball novel that’s not really that much about baseball, but very much about friendship. The lives of five people – three student baseball players, the college president and the president’s daughter — intersect at a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin. The care that Harbach takes with each of his characters reminds me of John Irving books I’ve loved.
  • The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides: We get to know Madeleine (an English major, whose thesis is on “The Marriage Plot”), Mitchell and Leonard during their heady days of college (Brown University circa 1982) and the first uncertain years after graduating.
  • Joe College by Tom Perrotta: Danny’s spring break from Yale may not be the same as his classmates; he’s heading home to drive his father’s lunch truck (the “roach coach”) for two weeks. A truly comic novel about higher education, work and relationships.
  • The Secret History by Donna Tartt: Remember this one? The one that felt like Dead Poet’s Society, only co-ed and in college, with the Classics. Add a small liberal arts college in Vermont, a murder or two, a gothic atmosphere and an eccentric professor who wasn’t Robin Williams.
  • Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon: An English professor struggling to get published is a worn tale, but the character of Grady Tripp is a treasure. And of course one of his students — a deeply troubled, brooding student — is a brilliant young writer, working on a novel of his own. It’s a comic, character-based novel that stands well on its own, but I also love the movie version with Tobey Maguire, Katie Holmes, Robert Downey Jr., Frances McDornald and, best of all, Michael Douglas as Grady Tripp.

One novel I’m not mentioning here is I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe, because I suspect I am the only person in Seattle who read it. I also suspect I may be the only one who still ponders the 90210 college question. 






4 thoughts on “Five terrific campus novels”

  1. I love “Straight Man!” I don’t remember that it had a focus on the students, though. Maybe because the character of Hank was so strong that he is what I remember. Anyway, Straight Man is my favorite academic-and-the-world-of-tenure novel.

  2. I loved “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” especially the audiobook, which has a great reader. It was also nominated for a “Bad Sex in Fiction” award. I’m currently enjoying Art of Fielding, which is, as advertised, excellent.

  3. You might check out our newly published campus novel, College Leadership Crisis: The Philip Dolly Affair (Rogue Phoenix Press, 2011)– a tipsy mixture of failed romances, power mad administrators, and Argentine political intrigue.

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