Throughout history, college has served not only as preparation for professional life, but also as a period of intense personal growth. It’s often the first time away from home and family, and into a wider swath of society. There is exploration, self-doubt, triumph, drama, friendship and romance. What could serve as better fodder for a novelist?
These 18 novels imagine different stories about the college experience, from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Princeton in the 1910s to Rainbow Rowell’s University of Nebraska–Lincoln in the 2010s. Comic or tragic, heavy on satire or social commentary, each of these books offers plenty to reflect on for students preparing to matriculate.
The Idiot, Elif Batuman (2017)
As a freshman at Harvard in 1995, Selin falls in love with an older classmate, and with the art of email-writing. Like many college students, she learns that her fascination with someone else says as much about herself as it does about the object of her desire.
Five Point Someone, Chetan Bhagat (2004)
A bestseller in India, this novel captures the stresses of life at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Delhi, where three friends get off to a rocky academic start and struggle to boost their social standing in a setting where GPAs are everything.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz (2007)
Though the plot of this Pulitzer Prize-winner ranges, blending Dominican history with elements of sci-fi and fantasy, some of the most affecting scenes take place while its protagonist, Oscar de León, and narrator, Yunior de Las Casas, are students and roommates at Rutgers University.
The Rules of Attraction, Bret Easton Ellis (1987)
Before he wrote American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis applied his dark sense of humor to a story about love triangles at an elite northeastern institution, the fictional Camden College (a stand-in for Bennington, where Ellis went to school). The students here concern themselves less with academics and more with who to take home after Thirsty Thursday Happy Hour or The Dressed To Get Screwed Party.
Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, Richard Fariña (1966)
This psychedelic bildungsroman centers on Gnossus Pappadopoulis through his partying and political activity at Mentor University (a stand-in for Cornell). After a trip to a Cuba in revolt, Gnossos brings the spirit of rebellion back to campus.
This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920)
Amory Blaine experiences life at Princeton pre-World War I, just as Fitzgerald did himself. Though he starts out as a “Romantic Egotist,” Amory’s experiences leave him far less confident — in romance and in himself — than he was when he left his Midwestern hometown.
The Gate of Angels, Penelope Fitzgerald (1990)
Set at a fictional Cambridge college in 1912, this Man Booker Prize finalist centers on a student, Fred, and a nurse, Daisy, who fall in love after a bicycle accident. As it becomes increasingly apparent that they move in different milieus, Fred faces difficult decisions about the relationship.
The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach (2011)
Shortstop Henry Skrimshander is the star of the fictional Westish College’s Division III baseball team, but his dreams of playing for the Major League collapse. Just as he loses his mojo, his web of connections at the college are thrown into various states of drama.
Welcome to Braggsville, T. Geronimo Johnson (2015)
In this social satire, four Berkeley students ditch the campus to visit one kid’s hometown in Georgia, where citizens annually reenact the Civil War. Equipped with their collegiate political learnings, they decide to stage a protest — but it goes horribly wrong.
The Collective, Don Lee (2012)
After his friend Joshua Yoon commits suicide, Eric Cho reflects on their experiences at Macalester College in the late ’80s, where they and another friend faced racism on the Saint Paul campus. The three eventually go on to form an Asian American Artists Collective that leads to more racially-charged controversy.
I’ll Take You There, Joyce Carol Oates (2002)
A young woman leaves behind her bleak childhood for 1960s Syracuse. But the narrator of Oates’s novel remains a cypher throughout, her personality a blank alongside the women in her sorority house and eventually her first boyfriend.
Blue Angel, Francine Prose (2000)
Set at the fictional Euston College in Vermont, this novel tackles the controversial subject of student-professor relationships. Prose examines what happens when a has-been novelist falls for his promising young student, satirizing bad writers, bad teachers, and changing campus mores along the way.
Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell (2013)
Freshman year at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln brings many challenges for Cath: her twin sister Wren won’t live with her, she struggles to make new friends on an intimidating campus, and her writing professor is against fan fiction, her favorite activity.
Moo, Jane Smiley (1995)
A Midwestern agricultural college informally known as Moo U is home to countless schemes, suspicions and scandals, with a department chair plotting murder, the student body facing off with a bombastic governor, and a student harboring an enormous hog underneath a school building.
On Beauty, Zadie Smith (2005)
A family with ties to the Harvard-esque Wellington College feels itself torn apart by personal and academic disagreements. Disgusted by his father’s infidelity, one son decamps for England, and the warm welcome of his dad’s scholarly nemesis.
The Secret History, Donna Tartt (1992)
At the fictional Vermont Hampden College (another stand-in for Bennington, Tartt’s alma mater, where she was friends with Ellis), six classics students form a tight-knit group whose exclusivity and bizarre dynamic grow more mysterious. By graduation day, one of them has been murdered.
Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh (1945)
Charles Ryder, an undergraduate at Oxford in the 1920s, befriends another student named Lord Sebastian Flyte and immediately becomes enchanted by the aristocratic, Catholic strata Sebastian and his family inhabit, one quite different from his own.
I Am Charlotte Simmons, Tom Wolfe (2004)
When she enrolls at the fictional Dupont University, fresh-faced and prepared for academic success, Charlotte is surprised to see how much her classmates value their social lives over their school work. She finds herself joining in, and losing touch with the girl she was when she arrived.
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