If You Like….

When I posted a call for “If You Like” queries a few weeks ago, one of the requests that popped up was for “Lady Academic Fiction”, fiction set in an academic setting or with a grad student/professor as the protagonist. What could be more appropriate for back to school season?

If you like Lady Academic Fiction, you’ll probably like….

— How can I not start with Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels? The first to come to mind are the Vicky Bliss books, in which professional art historian Vicky Bliss uses her academic know-how to solve a variety of crimes, heists and historical mysteries, starting with Borrower of the Night, although they just get better and better as they go on, culminating in the joy that is Night Train to Memphis. But don’t miss the Jacqueline Kirby books (The Seventh Sinner involves grad students and The Murders of Richard III historians) and such non-series books as Summer of the Dragon, Legend in Green Velvet and The Love Talker, all featuring grad students;

— Under her Barbara Michaels pseudonym, look out for Stitches in Time (involving a grad student) and Houses of Stone and Someone in the House, both of which feature English professors;

— Staying in the mystery theme, Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night has one of the best descriptions of academic life I’ve read, as Harriet Vane returns to her old Oxford college to get to the bottom of a series of disturbing pranks;

— One of my favorite mystery series, by Sarah Caudwell, features Hilary Tamar, Oxford law professor. It’s tough to call this Lady Academic Lit, since Tamar’s gender is left deliberately ambiguous throughout, but it is quite definitely deeply academic. The four books are Thus Was Adonis Murdered, The Sirens Sang of Murder, The Shortest Way to Hades, and The Sibyl in Her Grave (added bonus: cover illustrations by Edward Gorey);

— The Amanda Cross mysteries, starting with In the Last Analysis, feature English professor Kate Fansler;

— Jennifer Lee Carrell has won my undying loyalty for blowing up part of Widener Library in Interred with Their Bones, the first of her academic mystery/adventure novels featuring a former Harvard grad student;

— Speaking of Harvard, the wife of a history department classmate of mine (a history PhD in her own right) wrote The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, featuring a Harvard grad student who finds herself entangled in a legacy of witchcraft;

— And while we’re on witches, there was the big hit of last year or thereabouts, A Discovery of Witches and its sequel, Shadow of Night, which I have heard described as “Twilight for scholars”;

— As we inch into the paranormal, I must also recommend Rosemary Clement-Moore’s Maggie Quinn books, which take place in a high school (Prom Dates from Hell) and then college (Hell Week ).

Interestingly, while I can certainly rattle off lots of mystery and paranormal, I’m having a hard time thinking of romance novels featuring academics. Kristan Higgins’s Too Good to Be True features a high school history teacher, Susan Elizabeth Philip’s Nobody’s Baby But Mine is about a physics professor, and Jill Winters’s Blushing Pink stars a history grad student, but other than that, I’m drawing a blank.

Do you have any good Academic Lady Lit to recommend? All subgenres welcome….


  1. Jessica S. on October 15, 2012 at 9:38 am

    I really appreciate this list! I was a PhD student in French when I picked up Pink I, and it was really Eloise who convinced me to buy it. I thought: someone is finally writing for my people! Now I’m a battle-hardened assistant professor and I still need to read about “my people.”

  2. Joanne M. on October 15, 2012 at 9:52 am

    I might include A. S. Byatt’s “Possession”, the story of two scholars researching Victorian poetry and journals.

  3. Katie R. on October 15, 2012 at 10:34 am

    Christi Phillip’s The Rossetti Letter and The Devlin Diary are both very good! They are similar to the Pink books in that they go back and forth between a modern character researching the life of a historical character. I keep hoping she will write more books in this series!

  4. Vicki on October 15, 2012 at 10:35 am

    As someone who works in academia I certainly understand why there aren’t more romances that take place in an academic setting. 🙂 That said, I can think of a few titles that combine romantic elements with an academic setting:

    The Professor by Charlotte Bronte
    Class Porn by Molly Hite
    My Sister’s Keeper by Nora Kelly (mystery series)
    Swann by Carol Shields
    Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym
    The Odd Woman by Gail Godwin

  5. Kayci on October 15, 2012 at 10:48 am

    The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides… not necessarily a “grad” student, but about an English major nonetheless.

  6. Chartreuse on October 15, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    Joanne Dobson’s mystery series starring Karen Pelletier, a professor of English, has romantic elements.

  7. Pat on October 15, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    Try Barbara Cleverly’s Laetitia Talbot series. Laetitia was “sent down” from university so apprenticed herself to a family friend who is an archeologist. It helps to be rich and have connections! This is a post-Great War series, only 3 books in it so far, but I have really enjoyed it. Also her Joe Sandilands series, but that is not about academics.

  8. Leslie on October 15, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    The Amanda Pepper series by Gillian Roberts is terrific!

  9. jamie on October 15, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    I hate to be that comment leaver, but as an Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels fan I must point out that the culmination of the Vicky Bliss series is The Laughter of Dead Kings. Although, Night Train to Memphis is my favorite 🙂 I also adore Sarah Caudwell and I believe I discovered her through this site. The only academic novel I can think of that hasn’t been mentioned would be Mary Stewart’s Thunder on the Right

  10. Anne Smittle on October 15, 2012 at 6:45 pm

    What about Donna Tarte? She had two books out. Not necessarily mystery.
    I would be interested in any other books besides mystery. I don’t really read those, except Lauren Willig and Eliz. Peters. 🙂

  11. Lauren on October 15, 2012 at 6:54 pm

    Jamie, I have to confess, I deliberately left out “Laughter of Dead Kings”. It just didn’t live up to the rest of the series. (Which, admittedly, is a very high bar.)

  12. HJ on October 16, 2012 at 4:11 am

    I second Pat’s recommendation of Barbara Cleverly’s Laetitia Talbot series, and yours of the Hilary Tamar series. Both are excellent! And Gaudy Night is my favourite Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane.

    This is definitely not on topic (because the main protagonist is a man and not a lady!) but it is the first series I thought of which is based in academia so may appeal to those prepared to overlook that minor point… Lev Raphael has a mystery series about a gay English Professor Nick Hoffman set in “a factory-like state university in fictitious Michiganapolis, Mich.,”, which is very good and contains romantic elements. The first book in the series is “Let’s Get Criminal, an Academic Mystery”. I like them for the insight into how US universities work (Nick is battling for tenure) and because they’re very witty.

  13. Kathleen on October 17, 2012 at 9:59 am

    What about The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason? Not lady lit, but there’s a little romance, and it’s definitely set in academia?

    Or tTh Princeton Murders (and it’s sequels) by Ann Waldron?

  14. Pam on October 19, 2012 at 5:55 am

    Gah, I want to read all of these!

    Possession is definitely one of my all-time favorite books, just dazzling in all that it accomplishes and absolutely beautiful to boot.

    I would add Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, whose central academic protagonist is male but which features a strong supporting female academic character and is narrated more broadly by a female academic.

    Barbara Pym novels are always wonderful, in addition to Crampton Hodnet, I’d recommend Less Than Angels, about a group of young anthropologists, and Excellent Women (mainly about a spinster church lady but with academic types and learned societies playing a major role.

    I haven’t read The Aviary Gate by Katie Hickman but it is currently sitting on my shelf. I can’t vouch for how much of its storyline is given over to the modern graduate student protagonist, who discovers a manuscript fragment in the Bodleian that reveals the story of the daughter of a British diplomat shipwrecked and then kidnapped into the harem of the Ottoman sultan.

    Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie won the Pulitzer a while back. It’s about an American professor on a sabbatical year in the UK and her experiences with love and loss and all that. On my TBR pile and meant to be really excellent.

    Lucky Jim (Kingsley Amis) has a male protagonist but is a classic, and super funny. Ditto Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon.

    The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Murial Spark) is about a secondary school teacher but is quite wonderful.

    And definitely A Discovery of Witches, aaaah so good! Thanks for running this one, Lauren!

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