Saturday, December 26, 2009

Book Recommendations: Novels Set in a School

The insular world of prep school or college is a popular one for novelists. Students and even teachers sometimes can get into all kinds of interesting situations when they think no one else will find out. Often the setting is New England, with its image that wealth makes one untouchable. Fans of movies such as Dead Poets Society, The Emperor's Club, and Mona Lisa Smile should give these five titles (plus a bonus) a try.

1. Crying Wolf by Peter Abrahams
Abrahams is a master of the suspense genre, regularly getting high praise from Stephen King, and this book is no exception. Nat is a student at Inverness College in New England. He does his best to fit in, and he falls in with twins Grace and Izzy, New York socialites. They stumble upon a series of tunnels and secret rooms on campus, and hatch a daring plan to fake a kidnapping so they can use the ransom to pay Nat's tuition. However, another person is using the tunnels, and he sets his own plan in motion, with an outcome far more sinister than Nat or the twins ever imagined.

2. Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
Lee is from the Midwest, but she desperately wants to attend school on the East Coast. Throughout her four years of high school, we see her do her best to fit in, to pretend her family's financial situation is unimportant, and to find a boyfriend. She badly wants to be grown up and independent, but it takes time and experience to show her the value of family and of the process of leaving childhood.

3. Testimony by Anita Shreve
Each of Shreve's books is different from the others, and she experiments with story-telling techniques. In this one she uses characters' interviews, journals, and straightforward narrating to allow the story to unfold. A sex tape surfaces, and the headmaster of the Vermont private school must decide what action to take. What happened before the tape started rolling? What will happen to the participants? Marriages are destroyed, students' futures are set on unintended paths, and someone dies. Everyone's lives will change because of one night of thoughtless revelry.

4. College Girl by Patricia Weitz
In this debut novel, Natalie has transferred to the University of Connecticut, where she intends to major in Russian history. She's from a working class family and none of her brothers went to college, so she feels she has to prove herself--to them, to her professors and fellow students, and to herself. Whie studying in the library one day, she meets Patrick. He expresses some interest in her, and they slowly move into a dating relationship. She gives her viginity to him, but eventually sex seems to be all that is keeping them together. Is Natalie strong enough to get out of the destructive cycle? She must learn what kind of person she wants to be and then set herself on the path to becoming that woman.

5. Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan
Sullivan's first novel follows four girls through their years at Smith College. Celia, April, Bree, and Sally live on the same floor and become fast friends. They learn about each other and themselves as they face life outside college and become mothers, lovers, feminist activists, and strong women. As the title suggests, college is often just the beginning of life.

Bonus: A Separate Peace by John Knowles
This is a classic story, set in a boarding school in New England during World War II. Phineas is the charismatic instigator, able to charm students and teachers alike. Introverted Gene is drawn to him, perhaps because Finny is the kind of person Gene would like to be but knows he isn't. While the boys are being boys, a dare turns violent. Was it accidental, or subconciously cruel? The consequences of the boys' actions changes the relationship between them as well as the atmosphere on the entire campus. You might have read this in school, but make sure you pick it up again. It really is timeless, and it may mean something quite different to you now at another stage in your life.

Boarding schools and colleges often serve as microcosms of life, and the characters in the novels here experience their share of a fishbowl world. Their experiences will shape their lives, and you might learn a few lessons about yourself as well.

photo courtesy of Flickr

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