9 Novels Set in Boarding Schools
Coming-of-age books that take a closer look at wealth and privilege
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There’s something about the end of the summer that always engenders the subtle or, in some cases, deafening anxiety that comes along with the start of a new academic year. In elementary school, I dealt with my fair share of end-of-summer apprehension. But it wasn’t until high school, when I started boarding at a New England prep school, that the thought of going back to school–leaving behind my hometown, my family, my friends–was truly scary. Fourteen is an uncommonly young age to leave home, and, though we have roommates and dorm advisors, it can feel isolating and unnerving to be without our family during some of the most formative years of our life. Though many of us at boarding school feel we don’t belong in our new environment, we all believe that everyone else does, which results in unnecessary competition between peers and irreversible inferiority complexes.
Here are nine coming-of-age novels that peer behind the ivy-covered walls and steel-wrought gates to interrogate wealth and privilege.
Juliet the Maniac by Juliet Escoria
Escoria writes from personal experience in Juliet the Maniac, a fictional memoir of a teenage girl at a therapeutic boarding school. Told through hallucinations, notes, and patient logs, Escoria writes about bipolar disorder and the tumultuous journey to recovery in a raw and heartbreaking prose. Juliet’s time in the institution coupled with her seemingly unqualified health professionals reveals the complexities of being a young woman living with mental illness.
A Wonderful Stroke of Luck by Ann Beattie
In A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, Beattie employs the shrewd and wry prose typical of her oeuvre. The intentionally meandering plot follows Ben as he starts attending a fictional elite New Hampshire boarding school. At Bailey Academy, he is surrounded by competition, privilege, and the pressure to succeed. With deft transitions into the minds of the characters in Ben’s life, Beattie explores the mental map of a generation coming of age during the 9/11 attack.
Tradition by Brendan Kiely
In the past decade, the misogyny that runs rampant in elite prep schools has finally been exposed. In Tradition, Kiely questions the gender divide that plays a key role in the traditions that keep school spirit alive while simultaneously forcing female students into silence. The novel follows Jules and Jamie, two students at the Fullbrook Academy, who feel—for different reasons—that they don’t belong in their tony boarding school.
Town Boy by Lat
Cartoonist, Lat, brings readers to the industrial tin-mining city of Ipoh in Malaysia with his stunning drawings and sparse writing in this graphic novel. Set in the 70s, Town Boy is about Mat, a teenage boy who leaves his family and village behind to attend boarding school in the city. A charming coming-of-age tale, Mat is exposed to a multicultural community, falls in love, and discovers a love for the Beatles.
The Expectations by Alexander Tilney
Along with deep-rooted misogyny and archaic traditions, elite boarding schools also come with a wealth gap where popularity is defined by money and esteemed surnames. Tilney examines these socioeconomic issues in The Expectations. Set in a New Hampshire boarding school, Ben and his Dubai-born roommate Ahmed navigate the complex and fluid nature of teenage social life in a space dominated by blue bloods.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
The boarding school in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is a lot more sinister than the other schools on this list. Spoiler alert: the children at Hailsham don’t attend school to become the next generation’s leaders, but to be bred as organ donors as soon as they’re mature enough. Ishiguro uses this dystopian world and his enchanting characters to examine the existential and ethical questions that plague our reality.
Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
Prep begins with Lee leaving her solidly middle-class family in South Bend, Indiana to begin freshman year as a scholarship student at Ault, an expensive private school in Massachusetts. Awkward and more than a little dorky, Lee doesn’t know where or how she fits into the complex social hierarchy of her new school. Set over four years from the first day of school to graduation, the novel shows Lee’s gradual transformation and highlights the inaccuracy of our perception when judging our peers.
Old School by Tobias Wolff
Set in the 1960s, the unnamed protagonist, a thriving writer and scholarship student, enters a literary competition held by his school. The ensuing rivalries accurately portray the toxic masculinity and ruthless ambition that rages in all-male boarding schools.
The Secret Place by Tana French
Tana French takes a murder mystery to a boarding school in the fifth book of her series Dublin Murder Squad. Set in Ireland, Detective Stephen Moran is called to solve the death of a boy whose body was found at an all-girls’ boarding school. Along with the page-turning tension of a mystery, French deftly tackles the tension of cohabiting teenagers who spend every moment together at the fictional St. Kilda’s.