People are coming of age both sooner and later nowadays: nine-year-olds taking selfies, twenty- three-year olds lingering in their parents’ houses while they look for jobs. At any stray moment in that weird, fluid span of time, you can just grow up. It can happen in a year or a glance across the room, because of something or because of nothing. Sex is usually involved.
Sometimes you’re not even sure what changed until afterward — as a character in The Last Enchantments, my novel about a student abroad in England, says, “Like everyone, I slipped into adulthood like a delinquent through the back door.”
Fortunately novelists are obsessed with every variation of the experience; it’s no wonder that young adults have such intense relationships with books. These are seven that magically capture, to me, the enigma of coming of age.
Natasha by David Bezmogis
Almost certainly the best fiction ever written about Russian immigrants in Toronto, Natasha is a series of linked stories that re-sees the modest excitements of a suburban adolescence — basement pot-smoking, first jobs, first kisses — through the eyes of characters who haven’t quite come to take them for granted. After all, immigrants and teenagers are kind of in the same position, never quite at home, never quite comfortable in their skins. The delicacy with which Bezmogis draws this doubled alienation makes his familiar themes of youth and love fresh again.
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
There’s a difference between growing up and being forced to grow up, as the two characters in Eleanor & Park learn. Park’s family is loving and comfortable, Eleanor’s scattered and disastrous. Their meeting is involuntary — they sit next to each other on the school bus — and embarrassing to both of them. In time, however, they begin to thaw toward each other, and realize that their confusions about growing up are answered in each other. After a slumbering decade, dominated by Twilight and The Hunger Games, young adult fiction seems in recent years to have glided into a surprising golden age. This funny, humane, huge-hearted novel is one of the reasons why.
The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
Brideshead Revisited is the most famous coming-of-age novel set in Oxford, and The Line of Beauty is an heir to it, beginning in Oxford’s mellow golden streets before continuing on in Thatcher’s grayer-edged London. The book’s central character, Nick Guest, lives on the glamorous periphery of British politics and society, without ever feeling certain he belongs there — not least because he’s gay. More crucially, however, he’s in his twenties, which means that he only comes to understand gradually that the validation of his elders can be hollow, and fleeting. Even as he’s betrayed, however, he has trouble pulling away: As Hollinghurst writes of his characters, “The worse they are the more beauty they see in each other.” So much of the luxuriant folly of youth is present in that idea.