8 Novels Set in Private Schools That Will Make You Glad You're a Grownup

8 Novels Set in Private Schools That Will Make You Glad You're a Grownup

Monday, 10 August, 2020

Private schools are rich with possibilities for authors to really mess with their characters. But what’s agony for these fictional people can be an unadulterated good time for us.

A venerated institution like Oxford, or a boarding school that’s steeped in history, brings the weight of tradition bearing down on the students and faculty, not to mention the pressure of the actual coursework itself. For private school students and their families — often posh, sometimes spoiled — expectations run high, and not everyone can rise to the occasion.

Plus, there’s the claustrophobia of campus, an enclosed community where X-number of strangers — specifically, hormonally challenged young adults — need to find a way to live together in harmony (or not). Will they grow into a found family or become sworn frenemies?

This collection of recommended books includes a classic, YA titles with adult appeal, a literary thriller, and a British murder mystery with plenty of romance, ghosts, friendships, backstabbing, and surprises on the syllabus.


Special Topics in Calamity Physics - Marisha Pessl

The heroine of this dark-as-pitch, coming-of-age/suspense novel is 16-year-old Blue van Meer. The clever, bookish equivalent of an army brat, Blue has accompanied her much-adored — but still exasperating — father from one academic assignment to another.

For her last year before college, he promises an entire academic year in a single school: St. Gallway in Stockton, North Carolina. She’s soon shocked to find herself part of the cool kids’ clique — the Blue-Bloods — and under the spell of her charismatic teacher Hannah.

When death twice visits St. Gallway, this coming-of-age story transforms into a riveting mystery novel. Blue turns informal investigator to learn the whys of the situation and realizes that people are far more complex than the characters on the pages of the books she loves.

Always live your life with your biography in mind,’ Dad was fond of saying. ‘Naturally, it won’t be published unless you have a Magnificent Reason, but at the very least you will be living grandly.’ — Marisha Pessl

The Madwoman Upstairs - Catherine Lowell

The Madwoman Upstairs
> Catherine Lowell

Our heroine Samantha has a secret: She’s the only remaining descendent of literary superstars, the Brontë family. When her father dies, she enrolls at Oxford. She soon discovers that her father has bequeathed to her a literary mystery that will change everything she thinks she knows about herself and her family.

Samantha is routinely stalked by Brontë über fans who insist she must have inherited something from the famous literary sisters. Banished to an isolated dorm room in a tower, Samantha’s studies are interrupted by strange happenings. Is she being haunted by Brontë spirits? And just what did her dad have in mind with his cryptic clues?

This tightly-plotted, first-person narrative is an effusive love letter to the Brontës’ work and cheekily weaves gothic and romantic elements into its story to echo Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. (You don’t need to be familiar with those works to enjoy this story.) Rich with family secrets, coming-of-age angst, romance with plenty of sparks, and a compelling central mystery, this book is fun, cute, and smart, without being twee or pretentious — and, not for nothing, includes an excellent kissing scene and a pretty surprising and terrible villain.

He looked sympathetic, as though I was a lost, poor, friendless child — for the first time, a true Brontë. — Catherine Lowell

The Reece Malcolm List - Amy Spalding

The Reece Malcolm List
> Amy Spalding

This novel follows in the great literary tradition of stories that begin with the death of a parent — and then author Amy Spalding takes the plot in pleasingly unexpected directions.

When 16-year-old Devan’s father dies, she’s exported to Los Angeles to live with her mother, a best-selling author she’s never met. Devan is a list-maker, and in her journal, she keeps a heartbreakingly meager list of the facts she knows about her mom, a.k.a., Reece Malcolm.

After a bumpy start in her new home, Devan enrolls in the performing arts school and begins to find her way. But nothing is ever simple as we’d like it to be, and her conflicting bouts of confidence and insecurity perfectly encapsulate the agony of adolescence. She’s confused about her romantic feelings; she lashes out at the people she cares about the most; she yearns for female friends she can trust.

This light read plumbs emotional depths without clonking you over the head with its message, and is, ultimately, about finding where and how to belong in the world.

He’s wearing a totally normal T-shirt from the mall or whatever, but it hangs on him like the shirt has fulfilled its sole mission in life. — Amy Spalding

Down a Dark Hall - Lois Duncan

Down a Dark Hall
> Lois Duncan

Being a teenager is a tough business; There’s the changing hormones and the raging self-doubt and the fact that adults make all of your decisions for you. Plus, they never ever ever hear what you’re trying to tell them.

When Kit Gordy finds herself sentenced to attend a private school at Blackwood Hall, she’s angry at her mother, anxious about her new fellow students, and heartbroken to be leaving her best friend behind. And then everything gets much, much worse.

At first, it’s easy to reason away the weird dreams, nonexistent cell service, letters to family that go M.I.A., and the shadows that lurk in the dimly lit hallways of the creeky old mansion. But rumors that the school is haunted swirl around the students. Soon, Kit and her classmates begin to exhibit previously unknown talents. It’s unclear to Kit just what is happening, but she knows she doesn’t like it — and she’s terrified that she won’t found out before it’s too late.

Dragging in her breath, Kit did the only thing that she could do. She closed her eyes and screamed. — Lois Duncan

Villette - Charlotte Brontë

> Charlotte Brontë

The story is pretty straight-forward: an orphaned girl with zero prospects pulls herself up — time and time again — to be a teacher in a fictional Belgian city called Villette. But don’t be fooled: This is a challenging and weird book. If you’re a Jane Eyre fan, prepare yourself for something completely different.

Our heroine Lucy Snowe is a slippery narrator, and though you will probably find yourself rooting for her, you may not like her very much. Many of the other characters’ motives remain murky, as well, but one young lady — Ginevra Fanshawe — is transparent as chiffon, and she is a hoot.

Brontë keeps the action moving as she gives us an intimate peek inside the walls of the school: the petty squabbles, the challenges of dealing with the headmistress, the privilege of the students, secret love letters, and assignations, and… Oh, goodness! Is that a ghost?!

There’s an unsettling dreamy quality to the narrative and archetypical gothic elements that crash into an ambiguous ending you’ll be thinking about for a long time.

No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness. What does such advice mean? Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, and tilled with manure. Happiness is a glory shining far down upon us out of Heaven. — Charlotte Brontë

The Royal We - Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

The Royal We
> Heather Cocks, Jessica Morgan

Rebecca Porter has her feet firmly planted on the ground. She’s American; she loves junk food and beer, and she’s got the brains to have landed herself at Oxford University.

But then her equilibrium is interrupted by Nick, the dude down the hall… because Nick, the dude down the hall, is also Prince Nicholas, future king of England. He’s intelligent, charismatic, funny — and he’s about to upend her entire world.

This is an uncompromising look at how damn hard it would be to fall in love with someone, like the Princes, who wear a heavy crown of responsibility and expectation. Buoyant and fizzy as champagne on the surface, this novel also packs a wallop of genuine emotion. It takes a hard look at the endless grasping of the paparazzi and the 24-hour news cycle that revels in tearing down the very people it built up a day ago.

Just when you think you know where the story is going, there are plot developments and surprises to remind you that people are unpredictable and complex — even if you’ve seen their faces and heard their voices a thousand times before.

I don’t know why it takes something monumentally destructive to remind you what you want to save. — Heather Cox and Jessica Morgan

Well-Schooled in Murder - Elizabeth George

Well-Schooled in Murder
> Elizabeth George

Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley doesn’t fit the stereotype of a Scotland Yard detective. For starters, he’s an Earl: the eighth Earl of Asherton — and he’s a graduate of Eton with the intelligence and posh accent to prove it. His partner Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers is his equal in smarts but is working-class all the way — with a Gibraltar-sized chip on her shoulder. They make an indomitable pair.

This novel begins when a 13-year-old student goes missing from the prestigious Bredgar Chamber, a school founded in 1489 and grounded in the student code that says you never, ever rate out your schoolmates. The other 600 teenagers refuse to tell the detectives anything helpful.

The privileged setting is rich with atmosphere and pours gasoline on the fire of resentment that burns in Havers. For his part, despite his best intentions, Lynley is blinded by his heritage. This crime challenges the detectives personally and professionally — and the denouement is shocking, scandalous, and satisfying.

Kevin had heard himself asking the impossible, the ridiculous, the unutterably laughable. ‘The boy’s dead? You’re sure of it?’ The sergeant had lowered the cloth to cover Matthew’s face. ‘Quite sure. I’m sorry.’ — Elizabeth George

The Stranger Diaries - Elly Griffiths

The Stranger Diaries
> Elly Griffiths

Ghosts aren’t real. Right? That’s the question our heroine Clare Cassidy struggles to answer in this modern Gothic murder mystery. Betrayal, illicit affairs, witchcraft, and secrets committed to a diary haunt this can’t-put-it-down novel.

Sure, Clare sometimes wishes she was a teacher at a more prestigious school — Talgarth isn’t exactly Oxford. But in the soft light of October, it can be easy to imagine she’s teaching at a university, ‘somewhere ancient and hallowed.’ Plus, it’s home to Holland Hall, named for its previous occupant: R.M. Holland, author of the Gothic story The Stranger and the subject of Clare’s biography-in-progress.

Then real tragedy strikes: Clare’s co-worker and best friend is murdered. The police are convinced the murderer is someone Clare knows because found next to the body is a handwritten note inscribed with a line from The Stranger.

Soon, everyone is a suspect — students, other teachers, the philandering head of the school — and their dark secrets are brought into the light, including the ones Clare meticulously scribbles in her diary every day. The structure and the judiciously doled out clues keep everyone guessing until the thrilling denouement when all the mysteries are resolved, and the ghosts are finally laid to rest.

‘If you’ll permit me,’ said the Stranger, ‘I’d like to tell you a story. After all, it’s a long journey and, by the look of those skies, we’re not going to be leaving this carriage for some time. So, why not pass the hours with some story-telling? The perfect thing for a late October evening. — Elly Griffiths

Top image courtesy of Scott Webb/Unsplash.

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