Back to School – Fourteen Excellent School Novels

 

Here are the novels that take place at school, whether grade school or high school or college, which I have particularly enjoyed over the years.

 

Election’ by Tom Perrota (1998) – Here is a novel about high school politics wherein a history teacher decides to get involved in a school election much to his detriment. Given the circumstances and the manipulative overly ambitious girl Tracy Flick, who can blame him?

This Side of Paradise’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920) – This is Fitzgerald’s first novel written when he was only twenty-three years old, and I like it better than ‘The Great Gatsby’. It is a thinly disguised version of Fitzgerald’s college days at Princeton turned into fiction.

They slipped briskly into an intimacy from which they never recovered.” 

I’m a slave to my emotions, to my likes, to my hatred of boredom, to most of my desires.”

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ by Muriel Spark (1961) – What would a list of school novels be without Miss Jean Brodie in her prime?

Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.”

 It is impossible to persuade a man who does not disagree, but smiles.” 

The Sweet Hereafter’ by Russell Banks (1991) – This is probably the saddest novel on the list, because it begins with a school bus crash that kills fourteen of a small town’s children and cripples several others. Not only does it tell what happens in the town’s schools afterwards, but also it explores the entire town’s reactions through the points of view of four different townspeople.

The Groves of Academe’ by Mary McCarthy (1951) – There have been many satires of academic campus life, and this novel is one of the sharpest.

To be disesteemed by people you don’t have much respect for is not the worst fate.’ – Mary McCarthy, New Yorker 

I’ll Take You There’ by Joyce Carol Oates (2002) – I consider this one of the prolific lady’s best. It takes place in the 1960s with a girl being asked to join a popular sorority, then getting kicked out and falling for a troubled but brilliant grad student in one of her classes.

The individual who’d been myself the previous year… had become a stranger.’

Pnin’ by Vladimir Nabokov (1957) – ‘Pnin’ is an academic comedy about Professor Pnin who is supposedly based on Nabokov’s time teaching at Cornell University in New York. The novel has been described as ‘heartbreakingly funny’.

Caleb’s Crossing’ by Geraldine Brooks (2011) – The school scenes here are particularly memorable. The Pilgrim boy is an indifferent student more interested in other things. The Indian boy is the far superior inquisitive student and will go on to Harvard. All is seen through the eyes of the sister of the Pilgrim boy.

‘Lucky Jim’ by Kingsley Amis (1954) – Some novelists hit the jackpot on their first novel and will never again attain that success. That’s Kingsley Amis. This would go on my list as one of the funniest novels ever.

If you can’t annoy somebody, there is little point in writing.” 

The History Man’ by Malcolm Bradbury (1975) – a dark and scathing satire about the absurdities and contradictions of campus politics and life. This is the novel that killed sociology as an academic discipline

Marriage is the most advanced form of warfare in the modern world.’ .

The Getting of Wisdom’ by Henry Handel Richardson (1910) – It is one of the few classic coming-of-age stories depicting a girl becoming a woman as she attends a girls’ school.

The most sensitive, the most delicate of instruments, is the mind of a child.”

A Good School’ by Richard Yates (1978) – The story of a boy in the shabby second-rate Connecticut boys’ boarding school Dorset Academy in the 1940s much like the one Richard Yates attended himself. This is a strong novel by one of the best, if not the best, late twentieth century writers.

Wonder Boys’ by Michael Chabon (1995) – The hilarious blocked novelist Grady Tripp is also a professor, but the main reason I’m including it here is because the New York Times review by Michiko Kaukitani contains a sentence that is perfectly suited for all of us book bloggers: “It is a beguiling novel, a novel that for all its faults is never less than a pleasure to read.” This is the perfect line in order to hedge one’s bet about a novel. It is also accurate. ‘Wonder Boys’ is a modern classic.

Staggerford’ by Jon Hassler (1977) – This book humorously pins down school life in a small Minnesota town through the eyes of a teacher. Jon Hassler is a Minnesota writer who died in 2008. He is too good to be forgotten. Hassler has been described as a Minnesota Flannery O’Connor. The several novels of his that I have read, including Staggerford, have all been excellent.

I have left out so many school novels starting with ‘Small World: An Academic Romance’ by David Lodge, ‘A Separate Peace’ by John Knowles, and Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers.

This is a reprint of an article I first published in September 21, 2014.

8 responses to this post.

  1. I’m a really big fan of JCO but have never read I’ll Take You There (despite having a copy). I must get to it soon as I haven’t read one of hers in a long time.

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  2. Great list Tony! I’m busy adding some titles to my TBR (I’ve only read about four of your list). I totally agree with you about Lucky Jim — it’s my gold standard for a comic novel, truly one of the funniest I’ve ever read. Like Cathy, I, too, was unaware of the JCO, which sounds really interesting; as for Pnin, it too sounds enticing but I’m afraid I find Nabokov a little intimidating (one day I’ll do a Nabokov reading project. One Day!) Haven’t heard of Hassler, which sounds like my loss & I will definitely check him out.
    Some time ago I read many of the David Lodge academic satires and enjoyed them very much. I’m a little unsure, however, whether I’d like them as much these days.

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    • Welcome back, Janakay!
      ‘Lucky Jim’ is probably my all-time favorite school novel, but I have read a couple other of Amis’ novels and didn’t like them much.
      ‘Pnin’ is probably the easiest entry into Nabokov’s work, being short and humorous. It’s probably my second favorite of his after ‘Pale Fire’.
      Jon Hassler always got good reviews for his novels, but he seems to be pretty much forgotten after he died in 2008. I always liked his work, and hope some day they will reprint some of his work.
      I believe David Lodge has written a few school novels. He is another author in danger of being forgotten.

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  3. Good to see your comment about ‘Lucky Jim’ which is one of the books on my latest classics reading list. I read The Old Devils and thought it was excellent.

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    • Hi BookerTalk,
      Funny thing about ‘Lucky Jim’, it was Kingsley Amis’s first published novel; he published 25 move novels after that, and ‘Lucky Jim’ is still the most famous. His son Martin Amis has had a somewhat similar career trajectory with his early work more famous than his later work.

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  4. A great list and you tempt me with Richard Yates. Revolutionary Road is one of my favourites books of all time, a subtle masterpiece, but I found his Disturbing the Peace and The Easter Parade very imperfect, and now am afraid to pick up anything else by him for fear of big disappointment. Now I will not resist A Good School, I think. I also loved Stoner by John Williams also set in an academic environment.

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