“University will be the best time of your life!” I can guarantee that if you are a student, you have heard this at least once. I know I definitely have. Throughout fiction, university is portrayed as a life-changing experience where you meet amazing friends and truly find yourself. But how does real life compare to this?
I delved into the best fiction books set at university to see how well they paint the picture.
Starter For Ten
Starter for Ten by David Nicholls follows the first-person narrative of Brian Jackson in his first year at Bristol University in 1985 as he deals with education, love and identity. It is really relatable to the university experience, including the first awkward conversations with flatmates, struggling with work, and of course there is a classic love triangle thrown in there.
Brian believes knowledge is power and has a remarkable range of general knowledge. This leads him to audition for a place on the University Challenge Team, a dream he has had since childhood. However, all of Brian’s morals seem to go out of the window within his first week. At the University Challenge trials he gives away his answers to fellow student, Alice Harbinson, leaving him without a place on the team. Although this is early on in the book, this seems out of character for Brian. He values knowledge above all and this was both his and his late father’s dream, yet he throws it away to win the affection of a beautiful girl.
The book is comedic and makes light of all the situations Brian throws himself into, which is really refreshing and fun. University is often portrayed as a really happy time, and it can be. But what I like about this book is that it shows that you will make mistakes and get things wrong. University is a huge, and sometimes messy, learning curve about finding out what is important to you and who you really are, a message that is central to Starter For Ten.
Brian also struggles a lot with his identity throughout the book, which is comparable to real life. He feels like a different person at his home in Southend than he is at University, and finds that when he returns home for Christmas, he doesn’t get on with his friends as well. Before he leaves, Brian’s friend Tone says says “You’re not going to turn into a wanker, are you?”, followed by his friend Spencer with “He means you’re not going to get all studenty on us”.
This may be relatable for some people as moving away from home and meeting new people can be difficult. You live in accommodation with people from all over the country, from all different backgrounds. Life is different from your hometown, and you may grow into a completely different person.
Switching to American university fiction, otherwise known as college, I read Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. The book follows the lives of twins Wren and Cath, who are polar opposites. Wren is outgoing and popular whilst Cath is timid due to suffering with social anxiety, and therefore struggles when they become Freshmen at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This book is a must-read for anyone who is going through a tough time at university or is an introvert. It tells the story of Cath’s growth as a person, whilst highlighting struggles such as making friends, family problems at home, and the transition from a teenager to a young adult.
One of my favourite quotes from the book is “In new situations, all the trickiest rules are the ones nobody bothers to explain to you. (And the ones you can’t Google.)” This really encapsulates life at university. Similar to Starter for Ten, Fangirl presents university life as far from perfect, whilst still including all of the amazing highs such as Cath’s adoration for her writing class and her romance with fellow student Levi.
Finally, I have to talk about Normal People by Sally Rooney. It is such a deep and intense piece of fiction, following the complex relationship between Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan, as they attend the same secondary school, and later reconnect at university (Trinity College Dublin).
Rooney provides a raw and intense view of university life and how it can differ for everyone. Marianne excels in her classes and becomes a social butterfly, unlike at school where she was lonely and bullied. It’s the opposite scenario for Connell. He is used to being the popular boy at school, ashamed to admit his relationship with Marianne. At university he struggles with social anxiety and depression, leading him down a dark path that Rooney executes perfectly. The book tackles mental health at university in a way I have never seen before and could be relatable for so many people.
Overall, I would recommend all three of these books to anyone studying at university. They highlight the highs and lows of the experience, whilst keeping you entertained throughout.