Bastions for the wealthy or the truant, keepers of secrets and lies, boarding schools are a fascination of mine. I was a near-miss on shipping off to one for high school––the lovely Madeira School in McLean, Virginia. Madeira had a scandalous history and the shockwaves were still reverberating when I was admitted. In March of 1980, headmistress Jean Harris had a bit of a psychotic break, pocketed a gun, drove five hours north to New York, and murdered her lover, Scarsdale Diet founder Dr. Herman Tarnower. Madeira would have been such a stimulating environment, but at the last minute, I staged a coup and ended up at the local public high school. I’ve always regretted not agreeing to board at Madeira for at least one semester. Eventually, I attended an all-women’s college in southern Virginia that was situated on its own insular campus, with a major admissions requirement––all unmarried students had to live on the grounds, in the dorms. Those years satisfied my boarding school desires. Evermore, the moment I hear a book is set primarily in a school, it goes on my list.
What is it about boarding school stories that we find so compelling? The glimpse behind the curtain into wealth and privilege? The coming-of-age stories? The characters’ isolation from the real world? The hierarchical, sometimes militaristic structure—from the boards to the headmistresses and headmasters to the teachers who seek refuge in the private environs? Or the privileged or tyrannical students who scream for mutiny? Perhaps it’s the often-times scandalous history behind the schools, the esoteric educations, the inevitable clashes between students––many to the point of death. Or is it the knowledge that a torrid past lurks, and our innocent protagonist will be in terrible danger? Are we so morbid? Well, yes. It’s all of these elements, and more. In my opinion, there is nothing better than a mysterious story set behind a gate, and we need more of them. Here are some of my favorites.
Kazuro Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
I don’t think there’s ever been a book that disturbed me quite as much as Ishiguro’s. It starts with such a matter of fact tone that when the real purpose behind Hailsham is revealed, it seemed so inevitable and yet so horrifyingly twisted I immediately queued up the film (impeccably casted with Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Kiera Knightly) to experience it all over again. Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy play and study and love like normal children—but have been designed for a singular purpose. As the mysteries of Hailsham slowly unspool, the dying innocence and hopefulness of the characters make the sinister reality of Ishiguro’s dystopian world even more heartbreaking and terrifying. This story is a humanity lesson for us all.
Carol Goodman, Lake of Dead Languages
A quintessential boarding school mystery, Jane Hudson returns to her alma mater, the Heart Lake School for Girls, as the new Latin professor. But Heart Lake School has a dark history, and from the moment Jane arrives back on campus, it seems determined to repeat itself. Every aspect of this story––from the nature of the schooling, the gothic setting, the frightening history, and the imminent danger Jane finds herself in, ticks every box. Bonus read: Goodman’s ARCADIA FALLS––another wonderful boarding school story where the past haunts the present.
Simone St. James, The Broken Girls
A ghostly tale of murder and deceit set not at a school for privileged girls, but one built for the outcasts of society: the very haunted Idlewild Hall. Idlewild is for the unwarrantedly-labeled bad girls, the ones who have fallen from grace or embarrassed their families by participating in some behavior that, for the times, violates the social mores. Journalist Fiona Sheridan’s elder sister died on the school grounds, so she is quite interested when the school is bought and a restoration begun, and decides to write about it. This sweeping saga is so layered and nuanced, I could never quite put my finger on the truth. With its ghostly intonations, it’s especially effective on audio.
Christopher Swann, Shadow of the Lions
A spectacular debut novel that takes place at a fictionalized Woodberry Forest, Swann captures the intensity of friendships spawned in a single-sex environment, both in current day and in the past. When fallen-from-grace writer Matthias Glass deigns to accept a position at his central Virginia alma mater, Blackburne, the mystery of his long-missing former roommate Fritz rears its head. Elegant and compelling.
J.K. Rowling, The Harry Potter series
No list of boarding school books would be complete without Rowling’s Hogwarts. The castle school on the Scottish moors is what I dreamed of as a child when I thought of boarding schools––turrets and libraries and dark hallways and generational portraits scowling down at recalcitrant students. The insular nature of the school is heightened by the school’s function: to teach magic to a bevy of students who will soon be forced to choose between good and evil. It’s perfection.
Lev Grossman, The Magicians
Technically, this is a college book, but the campus of Brakebills University isn’t only behind a gate, but also behind a magical wall. The intensity of the classwork and the characters’ journeys qualify it for this list, plus, bonus points for the allusions to Narnia, with the Chatwins and their adventures to Fillory. This is also a book within a book, another favorite device of mine.
Donna Tart, The Secret History
This is another cheat book, but the setting of Bennington College is home to one of my all-time favorite mysteries. Tartt’s story epitomizes the genre: the isolation of New England’s Bennington College sets the stage for outcast student Richard Papen to fall in with a group of misfits who study Greek and the Classics. The small coterie dine in self-inflicted squalor on the finest china plates, have money to burn, and an unceasing curiosity about the world, and become Richard’s obsession. Oh, and they cause the death of a fellow student and friend in their attempts to experience a true Bacchanalian and spend the rest of the book in an agonized cover-up. No school-set book will ever resonate so much with me.
Curtis Sittenfeld, Prep
This sly coming-of-age tops almost all boarding school lists for a reason––Sittenfeld captures the scope of the prep school experience in Lee Fiora’s journey from gawky freshman to accomplished senior––and chronicles her fall from grace just as unflinchingly. It’s not as much a mystery as a classic coming-of-age tale set in exactly the right environs with just the right amount of angst and intensity. Sittenfeld is such an accomplished author one can overlook the lack of murder and mayhem.
J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
One must mention Holden Caulfield, expelled from Pencey prep school––driven crazy?––in the ultimate loss-of-innocence story.
Lastly, three honorable mentions from my To Be Read pile, boarding school books I’m saving for a rainy day:
John Green, Looking for Alaska
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
Karen McMannis, One of Us is Lying