James Browning's new novel, The Fracking King, finds the tap water bursting into flames at the Hale Boarding School for Boys, where Scrabble prodigy Winston Crwth finds himself going to mandatory Saturday classes and passing a swimming test with his limbs bound. Browning picked 10 of the best boarding school books.
“Good luck, Dave,” the grinning, Reaganesque headmaster of Phillips Academy Andover said to me on my graduation day. I did not correct him. More than my few, fleeting moments of triumph at boarding school—like, let’s see, getting in?—it was the humiliation that made me loyal, the sense that I would never be smart enough or cool enough or anything enough that people would remember me.
The closest thing to boarding school in my life now is, oddly, the Internet—the sense of being swept up in something so big, promising, boring, and dangerous, and which, no matter how I love it, refuses to love me back. And like some fusty headmaster, I fear a little for the future of boarding schools and the boarding school novel in the face of social media—my dorm had just a pay phone, why can’t yours?—and would gladly trade all of my emails, tweets, and the rest of it for one more game of double-amputee basketball in the basement of Taylor Hall. (This was our 1980s life-under-Cold-War version of the “Blitzball” played by the boys in A Separate Peace as they prepare to fight in World War II.)
Andover’s well-meaning motto non sibi, “not for self,” sometimes seemed like a twisted way of saying that our happiness was not important, or, even, that we did not exist as individuals. Here are ten great novels about boarding school as a place where you are forced to create yourself.
1. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
The word cloud for this brilliant, subtle, and subversive novel could fool you into thinking the whole thing was a bland student handbook or the Hailsham School’s novel-length appeal for money from its alumni. Narrator Kathy H. (the possibility that “H.” may be her entire last name is an early clue to the school’s true purpose) talks lovingly of the “donations” made by her friends and, without irony, says that a student giving his life in service of the school is “completing.” One of the best books I’ve ever read, a 1984 for the bioengineering age.
2. The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger
I read a Spanish translation of this classic novel in which Holden’s joke about his parents having “about two hemorrhages apiece” if he writes about them is ruined by changing the line so that his parents each have just one “ataque.” Two is funny, one is sad. Holden may be suicidal but there’s something life-affirming about getting inside the head of someone so cynical that they don’t even believe in death.
3. A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Fulfilling the dream of every kid who ever attended boarding school—what if you got to stay on campus and just goof off all summer?—Knowles’s lyrical novel also gives and takes away the friend you always wished you had, the witty and graceful Phineas, who’ll convince you to join the Super Suicide Society and jump off a high branch in a tree, or bike all day to the beach, sleep in the sand, and ride back just in time to fail your trig exam. The catch is that the boys at the Devon School are only attending summer session to expedite their entry into World War II, and that the novel’s real heart of darkness may lie in Phineas’s best friend, the narrator.
4. Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
Lee “Flea” Fiora is an outsider at Ault Academy—a Hoosier who knows that leaving her old school where classes were like a private conversation between her and the teacher may have been an “enormous error.” Yet for all Ault’s snobbery and slights from teachers, upperclassmen, and people who are supposed to be her friends, the person at Ault who is hardest on Lee is Lee herself, and her self-knowledge leads to the great insight that the real pain of high school comes from trying to get people to love you before you feel loveable.
5. Old Filth by Jane Gardam
It’s almost cheating to choose an English boarding school book—aren’t they all?—but what sets apart this sly, sophisticated novel is that here boarding school represents the most blissful, emotionally fulfilling period in the life of Sir Edward Feathers, a/k/a Old Filth (an acronym for Failed In London, Try Hong Kong). His mysterious headmaster “Sir” even cures his stammer.
6. A Question Of Upbringing by Anthony Powell
The worst part of most books about boarding school is, for me, the epilogue, in which characters’ ultimate fates are tossed off in a line or two—a problem you will avoid by reading A Question of Upbringing and the other eleven novels in Powell’s A Dance To The Music Of Time cycle. Like the Toad, the mad dictator in Nabokov’s Bend Sinister, whose mind became unhinged while being bullied on the schoolyard, keep your eye on Widmerpool, the “slavish” boy who takes inappropriate pleasure in having an overripe banana smeared on his face.
7. Villette by Charlotte Brontë
“If I could but once make their (usually large) ears burn under their thick, glossy hair, all was comparatively well.” This bit of mid-nineteenth century adolescent psychology captures the wonderful sense of freedom, fear, and possibility that the English Lucy Snowe finds as a teacher—or perhaps as a student, she is never quite clear on her official position—at a Catholic girls boarding school in France.
8. Old School by Tobias Wolff
If you’ve ever dreaded or been disappointed by meeting your favorite novelist, read Old School for its pitch-perfect evocations of Robert Frost and Ayn Rand as they visit a boys boarding school. Wolff pulls off a ventriloquist act that reminds me of the time a magician came to my boarding school and hypnotized several of my friends into believing their hands were glued together. The trick is thrilling, and in the case of Rand, almost certainly better than reality.
9. The Virgins by Pamela Erens
Unlike Prep, in which Lee Fiora is clearly her own worst critic, it’s hard to fully understand narrator Bruce Bennett-Jones until, among his many social, sexual, athletic and other failures, he briefly describes his very well-received production of Macbeth, in which the “unprepossessing” boy Bruce casts as Macbeth finds in himself “a true mean troubled desire to kill. He frightened himself the poor boy." Bruce’s obsession with a couple who seem blissfully happy (but aren’t) is similarly disturbing.
10. Getting Off Clean by Timothy Murphy
A fierce, tender, and original look at the world of boarding school through the eyes of Eric Fitzpatrick, a white public high school student who falls in love with Brooks Jefferson Tremont, a kind of black Gatsby who is simultaneously the most elitist and most down-to-earth student at St. Banner Academy. Brooks loves him back, or seems to love him back; it is part of the novel’s charm that, even more than sex, Eric is obsessed with getting Brooks to treat him as an intellectual equal.