Got Post-Graduate Angst? So Does The Marriage Plot (And Other Great Campus Novels)

The campus novel is great because it makes you nostalgic for being 22, and at the same time, glad that scary epoch is behind you.

Feb 23, 2012 at 2:00pm | Leave a comment

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College was a very unique time; it’s the only era in my life (thanks to very generous parents) where I had adult freedoms without adult responsibilities. I could wear the same hooded Ohio University sweatshirt every day, if I wanted to. My rent was paid for. My parents gave me $100 every two weeks. It cost $2 for a pack of smokes.

These were the halcyon days of a bargain $11 for a 30 pack of Keystone Light. Sophomore year, I would sell plasma a couple times a week if I got low on party funds. Not kidding! I was that ridiculous!

Almost 9 years later, I think back to my senior year of college and all the paths not taken. I’m sure I will be boring my own children with nonsense from 1999-2003. I’m Irish. We repeat the same mythologized version of ourselves, over and over.

Writers love to churn out books of the post-collegiate experience; namely lightly fictionalizing their own youth. Jeffrey Eugenides’ third novel, “The Marriage Plot,” is the best book I’ve read that captures the feeling of graduating and the ennui/malaise that accompanies the “now what” reality of post-academic life. It’s set in the early 80’s and begins on graduation day at Brown University.

Madeline, our waspy heroine, is an English major with an obsession with Jane Austen’s courtship books, all 19th century novels and the concept of love. Leonard, a suitor and sometimes boyfriend, struggles with brilliance and is crippled by poor mental health and breakdowns. Mitchell, Eugenides’ alter ego, is in doomed love with Madeline and disappears for a gap year in Europe and India, trying to fill his life with spirituality and God because he can’t have her.

The characters are intricately fleshed out and Eugenides accomplishes in 400 pages what most writers can’t accomplish in 10 novels. We get an entire year of the trio’s lives post Brown and the ending is about as perfect as the last page of a book can be. I am a huge fan of his other two novels; “The Virgin Suicides” and “Middlesex,” for which he won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. There is something ethereal about the worlds he exposes us to; whether it’s Michigan in the 70s and a bunch of hot sisters make a suicide pact, or it’s an epic family saga of incest, immigration to the new world and exploring the lives of people born “intersex.”

Read “The Marriage Plot.” It’ll make you nostalgic for college and being 22 and at the same time glad that scary epoch is behind you, because, well, you’ve grown up and have your shit together.

Other notable post-collegiate and great College novels of note:

July, July by Tim O’Brien
At a 30 year college reunion, we flash back to the class of 1969 and the downward spiral of a close group of friends. Everyone is married to the wrong person, some went to Vietnam, and others cheat at the reunion with their ex from college in their old dorms… Think “The Big Chill” but deeper, sadder and more exquisitely drawn. Tim O’Brien’s writing is beautiful.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt
A bunch of classics’ majors stage pagan rituals in rural Vermont at Hampden (Bennington!) college. Things get out of hand and someone mysteriously dies and it really effects the rest of the group and gives them a rep for Satan worship. Creepy and fun stuff!

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

I will keep bringing up this book to anybody who hasn’t read it until they punch me in the face…there is no greater ode to youth and Oxford and beauty. Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte meet at Oxford in the 1920’s and Waugh recants such loving, lush prose written about the grounds and the rooms of the most beautiful campus on earth, that it encourages you to visit (I have. Worth it.). It thrills me every time.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

A small college in Wisconsin gains a new student on scholarship; the most unlikely baseball phenom you can think of.  He has epic highs and lows. The campus sports a statue of Melville. Swoon. I quote “Moneyball,” it’s hard not to be romantic about baseball.

The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis
Thinly veiled Camden (Bennington AGAIN) college told from the perspective of several strung out narrators and a hilarious love triangle…Bret Easton Ellis is the king of pulpy books about fuck ups, drug addicts, and empty headed pretty people. Oh, the 80’s. The book also cross references characters and stories from “The Secret History.” Ellis and Tartt went to Bennington at the same time and were pals.

Do you have a favorite campus novel not included here? Let us know in comments.