Literary Coming of Age Fiction

Staff PicksMt. Pleasant Library

Literary Coming of Age Fiction

Literature often isn't about an event happening; often the best stories are about small events and how they change someone. One of my favorite types of story is one where the narrator grows up and into themselves. Adolescence is a time of so much growth, development, and change that is ripe with narrative power. Here are some of my favorite coming of age stories:

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
June has always been close with her Uncle Finn, her godfather and best friend, so when he dies nothing in her world feels right. No one in her family seems to understand her pain, particularly not her beautiful and talented sister Greta who seems to be almost reveling in June's sadness. But when June notices a mysterious stranger at Finn's funeral, she meets someone who helps her come to terms with her loss and her memories. This book is set in 1987, but it feels contemporary in a lot of ways, and the relationships are powerful and moving.

Normal People by Sally Rooney
Connell and Marianne go to school together, but that’s it. Yes, Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s house, but he’s handsome and well-liked and good at soccer (football in this Irish book), and she’s the school’s untouchable loser outcast. But when they start hanging out at her house, little by little they eventually develop a sexual relationship that turns into a deep intimate friendship when they go off to the same college. As they go through life, they grow and change and stay the same and have difficultly expressing how they feel and connecting. I expected to dislike this, but I loved it.

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
Lee spends four years at an exclusive boarding school near Boston, navigating unfamiliar social codes and struggling to make friendships that will stick. As Lee grows through her high school years, she struggles with being embarrassed by her family, maneuvers through class, and deals with an overwhelming crush on Cross Sugarman, who she thinks is out of her league. Lee’s decisions are often intensely frustrating, as is her social anxiety and unwillingness to be clear about her desires and work for what she wants, but she simultaneously feels so real. The lack of communication between the outside world and her boarding school occasionally makes this feel almost like a period piece, but it’s also a clear exploration of behaviors that still govern adolescent behavior.

Circe by Madeline Miller
It might feel like a stretch to call this a coming of age novel, but that’s what it is. Circe is the daughter of the sun and a nymph and therefore an immortal, but she is disdained by the other immortals. Eventually her witchcraft gets her exiled to the island of Aiaia. She is involved in several prominent stories in mythology, including Jason and Medea, the Minotaur, and most famously Odysseus. Still, this Circe is uncomfortable in her skin and largely unhappy with her lot, and this is a story of figuring out one’s skills and purpose. It’s also lyrical and compelling and a fitting follow up to Miller’s first novel, The Song of Achilles. I loved it.

Chemistry by Weike Wang
This short novel depicts the unnamed narrator’s life as she drops out of her PhD program in Chemistry and her long-term boyfriend moves to Ohio for a job after finishing his own studies. Original research requires something different than what school always has in the past, and she has to figure out what she wants without losing herself to her more successful partner, something her mother always warned her against. The depiction of family as something that adds more pressure but that you can’t simply let go of is powerful and believable, and the emotional and educational struggles facing the narrator are relatable to anyone trying to find their place in the world when the path they always thought they’d follow just doesn’t work out. This isn’t a traditional coming of age story, but in an economy where many people of my generation can’t afford what our parents had at our age, the struggles of twentysomethings are fuel for a new type of coming of age story.

And of course there are many great older books that fit this description, like I Capture the Castle and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn -- what's your favorite coming of age novel?

Bonus: if you need a few more suggestions, dip into this vintage (read: from 2015) Read Feed list.