Still recent history, the 1990s have been the setting of a run of novels lately that follow young women as they come of age.
While the circumstances of these fictional young women’s lives and the challenges they face differ across the novels, all of these titles explore how their protagonists’ particular journeys interact with—and are shaped by—the decade in which they are located.
In doing so, they also implicitly prompt the reader to consider not only what growing up in the nineties was like but also what aspects of growing up as a young woman are fixed and what aspects are determined by the time in which one lives.The Idiot by Elif Batuman
A Turkish-American from New Jersey, Selin Karadag arrives as a freshman at Harvard in 1995 with specific aspirations regarding who she wants to be. She soon begins a friendship with worldly Serb Svetlana and a less-defined, email-based relationship with Hungarian upperclassman Ivan, and she discovers through these connections, college life and a trip to Europe, how becoming oneself is a process—and an unpredictable one at that.Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang
All of the stories in this linked story collection are narrated by teenage daughters in Chinese and Taiwanese immigrant families living in 1990s New York City. Each girl’s individual experience is different—with one facing a potential return to Shanghai and another adjusting to the presence of her visiting grandmother—yet they also all face similar challenges of growing up at the intersections of their parents’ cultures and their own.New People by Danzy Senna
Maria Pierce and Khalil Mirsky are biracial 20-somethings living in 1996 New York, planning their wedding and participating in a documentary about race and the “new people” who are shifting the status quo. As their love story is celebrated, though, Maria starts to feel pulled toward a poet, and her attraction leads her to increasingly risky behavior and sets the stage for the revelation of secrets from her past.
Motherest by Kristen Iskandrian
Agnes is a college freshman in early 1990s New England when she learns her mother has left home without a trace. Already grieving her brother’s suicide, Agnes writes letters to her mother to try to process her feelings and loses herself in campus life—until an unplanned pregnancy and her return home to her father force her to reckon more fully with motherhood, family and her own way forward.
I Must Have You by JoAnna Novak
An eighth grader in 1999 Chicago, 13-year-old Elliot has a successful underground business teaching her classmates extreme (read: unhealthy) dieting, yet she misses her best friend—and former client—Lisa, who was recently treated for an eating disorder and is now absorbed by her relationship with a 19-year-old. Both teenagers struggle with their self-destructive tendencies—while Elliot’s mother Anna faces her own—as one long weekend brings their circumstances to a head.
-- Julia S.