Rebecca Makkai’s 6 favorite books that take place in boarding schools

Posted: 27th February 2023

The author recommends works by Kazuo Ishiguro, Lacy Crawford, and more

In Rebecca Makkai’s new novel, I Have Some Questions for You, a woman returns to teach at the boarding school where her roommate was murdered years earlier. Below, the author of The Great Believers recommends six other boarding-school books.

Behind the Attic Wall by Sylvia Cassedy (1983)

In a novel that was one of my childhood favorites, 12-year-old Maggie goes to live with her two great-aunts at Adelphi Hills, a boarding school that closed after a tragic fire. The founders’ ghosts live on in the attic, in dolls’ bodies, and Maggie soon becomes enmeshed in their world. Behind the Attic Wall is a masterpiece of the slow reveal, and still gives me goosebumps. Buy it here.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

Sure, Ishiguro’s Booker Prize finalist is science fiction of the highest order. But it also exists within the long tradition of the English boarding school novel, as a great-great grandchild of 18th and 19th-century progenitors such as Sarah Fielding’s The Governess and Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s School DaysBuy it here.

Old School by Tobias Wolff (2003)

Set at an all-boys’ boarding school in the 1960s, Wolff’s novel is a story of identity, ambition, and plagiarism, with cameos from Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, and Ayn Rand. I know of one real-life writers’ festival that started when a high school student read this novel and realized that hosting visiting writers was a possibility. Buy it here.

The Virgins by Pamela Erens (2013)

A deeply unreliable narrator looks back on 1979 to a romance between two of his classmates at an Exeter stand-in and the resultant tragedy that unfolded. This novel is a rule-breaker and a heartbreaker. Buy it here.

Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford (2020)

This is not a novel, but a memoir with novelistic ambience and scope. Crawford writes with stunning insight about her assault at a New England boarding school in the early 1990s and the school’s unconscionable response. Buy it here.

Villette by Charlotte Brontë (1853)

The last novel published during Brontë’s short life, Villette — the story of the deeply repressed Lucy Snowe, who leaves England for the Continent to teach at a girls’ pensionnat — is superior to Jane Eyre, and the only book I’ve ever literally thrown across the room. I did it out of passion, not disgust. Buy it here.

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