There’s something about the transition from childhood to adulthood that captivates storytellers: Everyone from Shakespeare (Hamlet was just trying to figure things out!) to Britney Spears (she’s not a girl, not yet a woman) have tackled these tricky years. In case you’re looking for something other than Shakespearean tragedies or early 2000s pop jams, we’ve collected a few of our favorite coming-of-age novels below.
Things That Happened Before the Earthquake by Chiara Barzini
Fifteen year old Eugenia is rudely yanked from her dreamy Roman existence by her filmmaker parents, who dream of fame and fortune, and transplanted to the strange, suburban world of the San Fernando Valley. It’s 1992, mere weeks after the Rodney King riots, and she has only the Virgin Mary to call on for guidance as she struggles to navigate the unfamiliar terrain of the LA high school experience. But the angst, ecstasy, and self-discovery of adolescence endure, no matter the backdrop.
In 1980s Yugoslavia, a young Muslim girl is married off to a man she hardly knows, and what was meant to be a happy match quickly goes wrong. Shortly after, the country is torn apart by war and she and her family flee to Finland, where her son, Bekim, grows up to become a social outcast—not just an immigrant in a country suspicious of foreigners but also a gay man in an unaccepting society. One night, at a gay bar, Bekim meets a talking cat, who moves in with him. It is this witty, charming, manipulative creature who starts Bekim on a journey back to Kosovo to confront his demons and make sense of the magical, cruel, incredible history of his family.
Christopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and every prime number up to 7,057. He relates well to animals but has no understanding of human emotions. He cannot stand to be touched. And he detests the color yellow. This improbable story of Christopher’s quest to investigate the suspicious death of a neighborhood dog makes for one of the most captivating, unusual, and widely heralded novels in recent years.
As children Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school secluded in the English countryside. It was a place of mercurial cliques and mysterious rules where teachers were constantly reminding their charges of how special they were. Now, years later, Kathy is a young woman. Ruth and Tommy have reentered her life. And for the first time, she is beginning to look back at their shared past and understand just what it is that makes them special—and how that gift will shape the rest of their time together. Suspenseful, moving, beautifully atmospheric, Never Let Me Go is a modern classic.
Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Here Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. With music pulsing on every page, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption.
Two girls who grow up to become women. Two friends who become something worse than enemies. In this brilliantly imagined novel, Toni Morrison tells the story of Nel Wright and Sula Peace, who meet as children in the small town of Medallion, Ohio. Their devotion is fierce enough to withstand bullies and the burden of a dreadful secret. It endures even after Nel has grown up to be a pillar of the black community and Sula has become a pariah. But their friendship ends in an unforgivable betrayal—or does it? Terrifying, comic, ribald and tragic, Sula is a work that overflows with life.
Toru, a quiet and preternaturally serious young college student in Tokyo, is devoted to Naoko, a beautiful and introspective young woman, but their mutual passion is marked by the tragic death of their best friend years before. Toru begins to adapt to campus life and the loneliness and isolation he faces there, but Naoko finds the pressures and responsibilities of life unbearable. As she retreats further into her own world, Toru finds himself reaching out to others and drawn to a fiercely independent and sexually liberated young woman.
In this brilliant novel, Judy Blume takes us back to the 1950s and introduces us to the town of Elizabeth, New Jersey, where she herself grew up. She imagines and weaves together a vivid portrait of three generations of families, friends, and strangers whose lives are profoundly changed one winter. At the center of an extraordinary cast of characters are fifteen-year-old Miri Ammerman and her spirited single mother, Rusty. Their warm and resonant stories are set against the backdrop of a real-life tragedy that struck the town when a series of airplanes fell from the sky, leaving the community reeling. Gripping, authentic, and unforgettable, In the Unlikely Event has all the hallmarks of this renowned author’s deft narrative magic.
On the island of Pate, off the coast of Kenya, lives solitary, stubborn Ayaana and her mother, Munira. When a sailor named Muhidin, also an outsider, enters their lives, Ayaana finds something she has never had before: a father. But as Ayaana grows into adulthood, forces of nature and history begin to reshape her life and the island itself–from a taciturn visitor with a murky past to a sanctuary-seeking religious extremist, from dragonflies to a tsunami, from black-clad kidnappers to cultural emissaries from China. Ayaana ends up embarking on a dramatic ship’s journey to the Far East, where she will discover friends and enemies; be seduced by the charming but unreliable scion of a powerful Turkish business family; reclaim her devotion to the sea; and come to find her own tenuous place amid a landscape of beauty and violence and surprising joy.
Nine-year-old Miles Adler-Hart’s mother, “the Mims,” is “pretty for a mathematician.” Miles and his best friend, Hector, are in thrall to her. When her marriage starts to unravel, the boys begin spying on her to find out why. They riffle through her dresser drawers, bug her telephone lines, and strip-mine her computer. Ultimately, what they find will affect the family’s prosperity—and sanity.
Burdened with such powerful information, the boys struggle to deal with the existence of evil, and proceed to concoct hilarious modes of revenge on their villains. Casebook brilliantly reveals an American family coming apart at the seams and, simultaneously, reconstituting itself to sustain its members through their ultimate trial.
Eighteen years old and completely alone, Rosemary arrives in New York from Tasmania with little other than her love of books and an eagerness to explore the city. Taking a job at a vast, chaotic emporium of used and rare books called the Arcade, she knows she has found a home. But when Rosemary reads a letter from someone seeking to “place” a lost manuscript by Herman Melville, the bookstore erupts with simmering ambitions and rivalries. Including actual correspondence by Melville, The Secret of Lost Things is at once a literary adventure and an evocative portrait of a young woman making a life for herself in the city.
The House on Mango Street is the remarkable story of Esperanza Cordero, a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago, inventing for herself who and what she will become. Told in a series of vignettes—sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deeply joyous—Sandra Cisneros’s masterpiece is a classic story of childhood and self-discovery. Few other books in our time have touched so many readers.