Club Clique: Seven Stories of the Crème de la Crème

Margot McGovern names her favourite stories of secret societies on campus.

At school we’re supposed to look up to the cool kids, the Plastics, in crowd, popular group, whatever you want to call them. You know who I mean, the Regina Georges and Aaron Samuels, queen bees and jocks who know how to mix a little charm and nastiness to create a whole lot of power. But really, aren’t these kids kind of boring? They may set the rules, but ultimately they still play by them. Far more interesting are those students who throw out the rule book altogether. The ones who inhabit private, heightened worlds of their own making and whom even teachers regard with something close to awe. Entry into these cliques is firmly by invitation only, and you’d be wise to steer clear because under their carefully cultivated air of aloofness, they’ve got something to hide.

Fortunately, fiction offers us a temporary passport to these closed worlds and the secrets harboured within. I have a particular obsession with campus fiction, specifically those stories that focus on elite (and oft ill-fated) cliques. It’s an obsession that began a decade ago when I first read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992). In the years since, I’ve read dozens of these ‘campus clique’ novels—some excellent, some woeful—seeking out that dual voyeuristic pleasure of gaining insight into the hidden lives of a self-proclaimed elite and watching them become the architects of their own destruction. After much happy reading, I thought it high time I shared a list of my favourite titles.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992)

The Secret HistoryTartt may have won the Pulitzer Prize for her third novel, The Goldfinch (2013), but in recent interviews (such as this one with Florence and the Machine’s Florence Welch—cue much fangirling from me), it’s still her debut novel, The Secret History, that readers and reviewers continue to gush over.

The Secret History is a smart, literary thriller set at a remote liberal arts college in rural Vermont where a clique of classics students take their learning literally and eventually deem it ‘necessary’ to murder one among their number. (That’s not a spoiler; it’s revealed in the opening lines that ‘The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.’).

The story is narrated by one of my favourite unreliable narrators, Richard Papen, a working class kid from California with ‘a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs’. He can’t believe his luck when he is welcomed into the Greek class, and his inability to see his newfound friends in anything but the most favourable light makes his story extra chilling.

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Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl (2006)

Special Topics in Calamity PhysicsUpon its release, Special Topics in Calamity Physics was hailed as Lolita meets The Secret History, and pays homage to both.

From the beginning we know that high school film studies teacher, Hannah, is dead—a suspected suicide—and a group of her students who call themselves the Blue Bloods were with her on a camping trip when the unfortunate event occurred.

Rewind to the start of the year, and narrator, Blue van Meer, the precious new girl in school, finds herself included in Hannah’s weekend salons with the Blue Bloods after a chance encounter between Hannah and her father in the supermarket. However, it quickly becomes apparent that nothing in Blue’s story is random, conspiracies abound and things are not as they seem.

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The Magicians (Book One) by Lev Grossman (2009)

The Magicians‘Harry Potter’ fans, this one is for you. Quentin’s life is miserable. His only solace lies in rereading the ‘Fillory and Further’ novels (think the ‘Chronicles of Narnia’), until the day he’s accepted into Brakebills Academy, a university for fledgling magicians decked out with all manner of Anglophilic follies. There it’s revealed that Quentin has a gift for physical magic—the cool kind of magic—and thereafter spends his time with the Physical Kids in their secret club house. Being the most talented of magicians, they soon discover that Fillory is, in fact, real, and set out to find a way in.

Sharp and satirical, The Magicians is a novel of disillusionment, insatiable desires and the often underwhelming experience of growing up, which sounds grim but in Grossman’s hands is rather fun.

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Looking for Alaska by John Green (2005)

41r-sKjJ61L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_If you’re one of the four people on the planet who hasn’t yet read Looking for Alaska, you must—it’s one of those rare reads that lives up to the hype.

Loner Miles ‘Pudge’ Halter collects famous last words and sees starting over at Culver Creek Preparatory School as a chance to seek the Great Perhaps and maybe make some friends while he’s at it. When he becomes one of the notorious Barn Night Crew, headed up by fearless prankster and ‘hottest girl in all human history’, Alaska Young, he believes he’s found both the Great Perhaps and love. But Alaska is an enigma and the closer Pudge gets, the more elusive she becomes, until Pudge realises he doesn’t really know his friends at all.

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961)

The prime of Miss Jean BrodieSet at an exclusive Edinburgh ladies college in the 1930s, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a story of betrayal. Miss Jean Brodie takes a group of ten-year-old students under her wing, calling them her ‘crème de la crème’. As the girls rise through the school, they continue under her private tutelage and become increasingly entangled in her personal affairs. But while Miss Brodie views the girls as her agents, encouraging them to enjoy the pleasures she cannot, the girls are increasingly attuned to their own desires and are soon beyond her control.

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Sleepwalking by Meg Wolitzer (1982)

SleepwalkingOn the Swarthmore campus three students stand out. They’re known as the Death Girls. Dressing in black they model themselves after their favourite suicidal poet and keep nocturnal hours, meeting in each other’s rooms to recite their favourite verse by candlelight.

But people don’t fall ‘half in love with easeful death’ without a reason, and eventually the trio, in particular their most devout member, Claire, must face the very real grief and pain behind their theatrics.

Though not as polished as Wolitzer’s later works, Sleepwalking is a sensitive and nuanced debut.

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The Quakers by Rachel Hennessy (2008)

The QuakersInspired by the death of university student, Joe Cinque, at the hands of his girlfriend, Anu Singh, (which is also the focus of Helen Garner’s non-fiction account, Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004)) The Quakers is a relatively rare example of Australian campus clique fiction.

The story begins with an earthquake that ruins a birthday party and brings together a group of high school outsiders who henceforth call themselves The Quakers. They dress alike—all in black—and become a shadowy, enigmatic presence hovering around the fringes of the school. Instead of drifting apart, as is the fate of many high school cliques following graduation, The Quakers draw closer than ever at university and what began as friendship sours to toxic obsession.

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