From his debut novel, Zoology, released when he was just twenty-four years old, to his latest, At the Bottom of Everything, Ben Dolnick has proven that he knows a thing or two about coming-of-age novels! So when the opportunity presented itself, we jumped at the chance to have him talk about the genre and share a few of his favorite examples. After all, coming-of-age stories make wonderful book club selections: even though the circumstances and characters may vary, their universal themes about life and adulthood resonate with all of us.
Coming-of-age books, the best of them, follow just one rule. They treat the concerns of people in their teens and twenties—relating (or failing to relate) to family; finding (or failing to find) love; deciding (or failing to decide) what to do with your life—as being no less important or interesting than the concerns of older, more settled people. Here are three of my favorites:
Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer
Roth’s books from this post-Portnoy period have a tendency to disappear up their own fundaments (and then to spend hundreds of pages ruminating on the act of disappearing up one’s own fundament). This one doesn’t. It’s the first of his books to feature Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s alter ego, and it may be his best. Zuckerman, just beginning to blossom as a twenty something writer, gets invited to visit his hero, the novelist E.I. Lonoff, at his country house. Hilarity—i.e., inappropriate masturbation; a plot involving a woman who may just be Anne Frank; and a great deal of literary disillusionment—ensues.
Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women
This is, in some ways, the simplest of Munro’s books—and it’s the only one that’s ever been described as a novel, though it’s really a collection of linked short stories. It tells the story of Del, a girl growing up in rural-ish Canada, with all the attendant concerns: boys, humiliation by parent, illicit drunkenness, and religious experimentation. The plot, to the extent that there is one, could be summarized as: life happens. But it is, as anyone who’s read her knows, a great privilege to watch life happen, when the announcer in the broadcast booth happens to be Alice Munro.
Scott Spencer’s Endless Love
Of these three books, this one is the least literarily nutritious (though it’s far from junk), but it is also the one you will probably enjoy most in the gobbling up. It tells the story of a teen romance between David Axelrod (no relation, presumably, to the political consultant) and Jade Butterfield, and it happens to contain the longest, most intense sex scene I have ever read. Whatever expectations you have when you hear the phrase “coming-of-age”—out-of-control lust, angst-ridden letters, weeping in the rain—this book will meet them, and then go on meeting them until you’re a panting, sodden wreck.
Ben Dolnick is the author of the novels Zoology, You Know Who You Are, and, most recently, At the Bottom of Everything, a sophisticated yet funny rumination on the tribulations of youth and the obligations of friendship. Read an excerpt and click here for the reading guide.