While I’m a public school girl, I did enjoy the boarding school-like atmosphere of several successive summer camps that culminated with four weeks at a camp that actually did require uniforms and really was a boarding school during school months.
See if you can spot me:
I’ll leave a list of summer camp books for another time (and I promise you it will include the Babysitter’s Club). For now, consider this list an addendum of evidence as to the power of the boarding school as setting.
Yes, this is an American Harry Potter type story–Max McDaniels discovers his (Irish) magic heritage and is sent to Rowan Academy in Virginia, where he has adventures and also finds that a great evil is awakening in the world, but also its own thing. Neff incorporates the whole world much more widely than Rowling and goes in a different direction with his evil–Max is fighting demons instead of a twisted human, and his journey is much closer to the questing of Finn McCool. Neff actually abandons the boarding school format in Book 3 (but still read it, because there’s a scene with a creeping thing a well that is just fantastic).
And I see that a fourth book is coming out this October. Word.
The Magicians is set in a world where everyone knows about Harry Potter, the series. And then our mopey, can’t-get-his-shit-together protagonist, Quentin, finds out that there really is a school of magic, and that he has a chance to get in. But magic is much more scary and complicated than wand-waving, and graduation is even more complicated than magic. Or, it’s even more complicated when you know you have magic and you have to figure out if it even means anything in the long run.
Gemma Doyle is orphaned and taken from her home in India to Spence Academy, where she uncovers a secret world and a secret about herself. And a cute boy. It’s a tart, fun historical mystery with equal parts bitchery and girl power.
Sure, the third book is flawed and maybe you’d be better making up your own ending, but the richness of the world that Bray invents still makes it something I’d recommend reading.
Or if you want a boarding school mystery set in London with both historical and supernatural elements, but don’t want to read this, you could dive into The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson. It’s got Jack the Ripper and quite a cliffhanger. (It looks like the second book, The Madness Underneath, will be published next year.)
Or there’s always the option of a prep school mystery involving a secret society, seen through a townie outsider’s eyes. . . It’s set by the ocean, too.
There are really two boarding schools here – the Enfield Tennis Academy and the recovering addicts of Ennet House. AND SO MUCH MORE. As Publisher’s Weekly described it:
“set in an absurd yet uncanny near-future, with a cast of hundreds and close to 400 footnotes, Wallace’s story weaves between two surprisingly similar locales: Ennet House, a halfway-house in the Boston Suburbs, and the adjacent Enfield Tennis Academy. It is the ‘Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment’ (each calendar year is now subsidized by retail advertising); the U.S. and Canada have been subsumed by the Organization of North American Nations, unleashing a torrent of anti-O.N.A.N.ist terrorism by Quebecois separatists; drug problems are widespread; the Northeastern continent is a giant toxic waste dump; and CD-like ‘entertainment cartridges’ are the prevalent leisure activity. The novel hinges on the dysfunctional family of E.T.A.’s founder, optical-scientist-turned-cult-filmmaker Dr. James Incandenza (aka Himself), who took his life shortly after producing a mysterious film called Infinite Jest, which is supposedly so addictively entertaining as to bring about a total neural meltdown in its viewer.”
Two bookmarks are required to read this, and yet I still wished it were longer.
Breathless also works the outsider perspective, but as a coming of age tale, no mystery but the mysteries of human socialization and family dynamics. I’ve recommended it here before. Because it’s really good. Katie’s a girl with a talent but she comes from a family with their own problems, and she has to work out from under the feeling that she doesn’t deserve good things in life.
I pointed out in my home library post that this book was a life-changer for me. People either love Lee or want to slap her because they’re frustrated with her. I identified with her way too much for comfort, which ended up being a helpful psychological journey where I worked out some issues via the story. What made that possible was Sittenfeld’s excellent, incisive characterization and writing that drops you into prep school without calling attention to itself, but doesn’t hide its skill. In that way it’s very much like the voice in Girl.
And yet, not all boarding school books are total angst fests. Tallulah Casey, the girl who narrates Withering Tights, does fret about things when she starts her first year of Performing Arts College in brooding, moor-y rural England. But it’s the kind of fretting that sets up slapstick-y gags and hilarious misunderstandings. Withering Tights is the start of a new series, so it’s a good go-to for breaks from Infinite Jest.