8 Books About the (Sometimes Toxic) Intensity of School Friendships

Cliques, cults, emotional trauma, murder... just the usual high school and college social scene

Photo by Manuel Angel

A new school year means an opportunity to make new friends. But what happens when the intensity of school life turns friendship into something unexpected, and possibly sinister? On this list, you’ll find innocent school friends turned into lovers, enemies, and accomplices in ritualistic murders. With friends like these, you probably won’t be getting any homework done.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Richard Papen, a California boy longing for an escape from his less-than-romantic life, gets more than he bargained for when he transfers to a private college in Vermont. Upon his arrival, Richard is sucked into a Dionysian cult in the form of his insular Classics class. When things go too far and the students murder one of their peers, these Greek-obsessed friends must confront the tragedy they’ve created.

Trust Exercise

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

These high-schoolers and their enigmatic theater teacher aren’t to be trusted—not even the book’s narrator. Full of secrets, lies, and twists, this novel about students at a performing-arts high school examines the stories we tell about ourselves and how far they can veer from the truth. 

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Marianne and Connell are two teenagers from opposite worlds. However, when their lives pull them together, they begin a secret affair that follows them from high school to college, an affair that helps them align their painful pasts with their present selves as they grow up together.

The Secret Place by Tana French

The Secret Place by Tana French

When a young boy is found dead at an all-girls school, the lives of two close-knit groups of girls are thrown into chaos and question. Told alternately from the perspective of the girls in the year before the death, and from the murder investigators months after, this detective novel explores the dark sides of friendship and loyalty. 

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Blue Van Meer is an intelligent, eccentric high school senior who has been hopping from school to school for the last few years. When she finally gets to settle in North Carolina, she immediately falls in with a group of “genius” students and their strange professor, Hannah. But when Hannah is found dead, Blue must unravel a tightly-knotted murder mystery. 

If We Were Villains

If We Were Villains by ML Rio

At the end of Oliver Marks’ ten-year prison sentence, he finally agrees to tell police the true story of the night that landed Oliver in jail. Over the course of their senior year Dellecher Classical Conservatory, seven drama students spiral into murderers as Oliver describes the increasing madness and violence of his Shakespeare-obsessed peers. 

The Fall of Rome by Martha Southgate

Jerome Washington is the only Black teacher at a Connecticut boarding school for boys. When Rashid Bryson, a Black student from Brooklyn, is accepted to the school as part of an affirmative-action initiative, he looks for friendship in Jerome. Jerome’s rejection leads Rashid to Jana Hansen, a white teacher who wants to support him. As these three protagonists’ lives tangle together, their shared tragedies are revealed as their lives begin to crumble.

The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman

The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman

When Jane Hudson returns to her former all-girls school to teach Latin, her past resurfaces in unexpected ways. As we learn about Jane’s past at the school and the deaths that plagued her childhood there, we see sinister patterns repeat when one of Jane’s students tries to kill herself. 

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