I just read a great novel, Commencement, by J. Courtney Sullivan. It’s about the lives and post-college trajectories of four women who graduate from Smith College in 2002. I was rapt from beginning to end. Despite the age and gender difference, I related to the characters, the place they went to school and the whole litany of career/life/relationship issues they faced.
This “four college friends and what happens to them” genre is one that I am quite familiar with. There are lots of novels that follow this conceit and since it’s summer, here are my top picks for those of you who are similarly entranced by these kinds of books.
The Group, by Mary McCarthy, is the progenitor of the whole genre. It describes seven women who went to Vassar in the 1930 and what becomes of them in the decades that follow. It’s entertaining, witty, bleak – the whole shebang. A classic!
The next, in chronological terms, is Alice Adam’s book, Superior Women, which describes a group of women who go to Radcliffe in the 1940s. One of the characteristics of this genre, here very much in evidence, is the way that people from different, often incompatible geographic and social backgrounds end up becoming friends, changing each other, and then going their own way.
Set in the 1950s is Erich Segal’s, The Class (he also wrote “Love Story”). Featuring a thinly disguised Henry Kissinger character among other leads, it’s a male take on these themes. Also set at Harvard.
Rona Jaffe’s book, Class Reunion, also set at Harvard, focuses on women in the 1960s in college and their career and relationship ambitions and struggles. Among other plot developments, one of the women becomes obsessed by, and ends up marrying, a gay man.
The next book on my list, The Student Body, was co-authored by your very own creative lawyer, Michael Melcher! Three friends and I wrote this novel, published in 1998 under the pen-name, “Jane Harvard,” primarily because we figured someone would eventually write a book about going to Harvard in the 1980s, so we wanted to do it first. It's about a secret student prostitution ring (we got the idea from an actual ring that occurred at Brown).
The very best novel set at college, in my opinion, is Donna Tartt’s, The Secret History, which was published in the early 1990s. It’s set at a thinly disguised Bennington College. It’s about a group of students studying a special classics curriculum who end up murdering a classmate. Brilliantly written, gripping, witty – I want to read it again right now. Tartt is an amazing writer.
My final item is a book not about college, but since it’s about a prep school, it is pretty much the same cast of characters – Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld. It’s a story about an ordinary middle class girl who ends up at an elite prep school. It’s a fascinating depiction of prep school as well as good a description as any of the tortures and pleasures of adolescence.