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7 Books To Indulge Your Back-to-School Nostalgia

These stories will transport you to the schoolyard or campus, from a poignant, coming-of-age novel to psychological thrillers to a true-crime whodunit / BY Athena McKenzie / September 17th, 2021

For those who look back fondly on their school days, there’s nothing like a crisp autumn morning to spark some wistful memories. Luckily, there are plenty of books that will immerse you in a scholastic setting, from poignant coming-of-age novels and gripping psychological thrillers to riveting, true-crime whodunits.

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1The MaidensAlex Michaelides

In Alex Michaelides’ new novel, a serial killer is loose at Cambridge University. Therapist and alumnus Mariana Andros is compelled to investigate when her niece, a current student, calls to say a friend has been brutally murdered. That friend was a member of The Maidens –  a reference to the cult of Eleusis in ancient Greece, whose followers worshipped Demeter and Persephone – a secret society devoted to Edward Fosca, a charismatic classics professor. Andros becomes dangerously obsessed with proving Fosca is the killer. Michaelides, a Cyprus-born writer, earned his M.A. in English Literature from Trinity College at Cambridge University, so his evocation of the campus rings especially true. 

2The Girls Are All So Nice HereLaurie Elizabeth Flynn

Generally speaking, there are two kinds of people: those who look forward to class reunions, and those who prefer to avoid them. Ambrosia Wellington has no intention of attending her 10-year college reunion until she receives a mysterious note: “We need to talk about what we did that night.” The central mystery — what exactly happened? — harkens back to an incident in freshman year, which was a hotbed of rivalry, real and feigned friendships, and a secret worth dying for. In her debut adult-fiction novel, the London, Ont.-based writer conjures up a fast-paced thriller with a cutting examination of female relationships.  

3We Keep the Dead CloseBecky Cooper

Former New Yorker staff member Becky Cooper was an undergraduate at Harvard in the early 2000s when she first heard the stories: a young grad student was murdered in the Peabody Museum in the ‘60s following an affair with a professor. Was there any truth to it? Was a faculty member involved? Did the university cover it up? We Keep the Dead Close, a hardcover bestseller now available in paperback, follows Cooper’s return to her alma mater and in-depth investigation into the murder of Jane Britton. It is a riveting exploration of academic life, antagonism, lies and death.

4The DivinesEllie Eaton

Fifteen years ago, the girls’ boarding school St. John the Divine was forced to close after it was mired in scandal. Josephine, a student in the last cohort, has cut herself off from her schoolmates and tried to bury her experiences as a “Divine.” Now in her early thirties, she begins to piece together what happened in those final months at the school and her role in a tragedy. Shifting between the two time frames, the author deftly captures both the pain and pleasure of youth and the difficulty of coming to terms with the past. The debut novel from Eaton, who was born and raised in England, has been lauded by everyone from Entertainment Weekly and CNN to Shondaland.com, the media company founded by Shonda Rhimes, creator of TV shows like How to Get Away With Murder and Scandal.

5The PlotJean Hanff Korelitz

Back-to-school isn’t just about students; there’s also the faculty to consider. That’s fertile ground for the latest from New York-based writer Jean Hanff Korelitz, author of You Should Have Known (the basis for the 2020 HBO show The Undoing) and Admission (adapted as a 2013 film starring Tina Fey). Protagonist Jacob Finch Bonner was once the “Next Big Thing” in literary circles, but hasn’t written a thing in years and now grinds away as a teacher in a second-rate Master of Fine Arts program. When a student boasts that his new novel is a sure-fire bestseller, Bonner scoffs; but when the student dies, he decides not to let a good manuscript go to waste and publishes it under his own name. Fame and fortune follow, but it seems someone may know the professor’s dirty secret. 

6All's WellMona Awad

Montreal-born writer Mona Awad delighted readers with her previous campus novel Bunny, about a lonely graduate student drawn into a clique of rich girls, which Margaret Atwood called “sooo genius.” In the often surreal All’s Well, a chronically ill theatre professor, Miranda Fitch, tries to mount a production of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well in the struggling theatre department of a small New England college. When she’s offered a strange deal to make her dreams come true, will she remember one of the play’s most beloved quotes: “Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none”? 

7The Most Precious Substance on EarthShashi Bhat

As one cover blurb puts it: “High school is a setting ready-made for drama.” B.C.-based writer Shashi Bhat knows how to capture the bounce between ennui and angst that epitomizes many a teenage experience. The darkly comic novel, which begins in Halifax in the mid-1990s, follows our heroine Nina’s tumultuous journey from high-school student to high-school teacher. It explores all the uncomfortable truths about how women are conditioned to be silent, and how that can shape a life. 


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