I love it when novels invite me into a group of interesting people and let me feel like one of them, a member of a clique of interesting, elegant, off-beat people. Sometimes it’s people with a secret, as the groups in Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, The Witching Hour by Anne Rice, and even Twilight by Stephanie Meyer. In the case of the novels below, it’s being in college together. I read all of these for the first time in high school, and even after my own college experience was nothing like any of these, I have still re-read each of the books below more times than I can count, finding comfort in these ivory towers.
Tam Lin by Pamela Dean
Tam Lin (which I first read in an edition with a gorgeous cover by Thomas Canty) is a retelling of the folktale/ballad of Tam Lin, but set in a small liberal arts college in Minnesota in the 1970s. Our heroine, Janet, is the daughter of a Classics professor, and ends up friends with an odd, interesting, difficult group of people, who she eventually discovers are more than what they seem. The book takes a long time to get there, though, and for me, most of the pleasure is hanging out with the group of people, who discuss literature and poetry and theater all the time, and if they must discuss any of the sciences, they always have an apt quote from a literary giant (or Gilbert and Sullivan) to express their frustration. But beware the Classics department…
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Really beware the Classics department at Camden College, in Donna Tartt’s first novel. This is a psychological novel about a group of Classics students at a small Vermont liberal arts college in the 1980s who murder one of their classmates on the very first page. Over the next 500 pages, the reader learns why they killed him and, in my case, grows sympathizes with them, even while finding them monstrous. The clique in this novel is so seductive and our narrator so hungry for acceptance, it is clear why he ends up going along with and participating in the murder, and that leaves the reader feeling horribly, deliciously complicit.
Fool on the Hill by Matt Ruff
It’s impossible to describe this novel, set at Cornell in the 1980s, set among every landmark I know so well from growing up in Ithaca and then going to Cornell University. There is a writer who can do magic, a muse, a Tolkein fraternity, a motley assortment of knights on horses and motorcycles, sprites invisible to the human eye, a dragon, a dog searching for heaven with a world-weary cat who helps him, and finally a war that takes place on planes both ridiculous and deadly serious. I wanted to be one of the Bohemians when I first read this book in high school, and though Risley did not want to let in an Engineering student (single tear), I believe I am a Bohemian now.