I feel like there’s this widespread misconception about literary fiction that it’s all about old straight white men, and that people in their 20s have to turn to YA in order to see themselves represented. This is not an anti-YA thing. Read what you want to read. I just wanted to write this post to give a few alternate options to anyone in their 20s or 30s who’s looking to see themselves and their age-specific struggles represented in adult fiction, whether it’s dealing primarily with romance, sex, friendship, money, mental illness, academia, professional life, family, or some combination of the above. Summaries (italicized) are from Goodreads, other thoughts are my own.
Normal People by Sally Rooney. “Connell and Marianne both grow up in the same town in rural Ireland. The similarities end there; they are from very different worlds. But they both get places to study at university in Dublin, and a connection that has grown between them despite the social tangle of school lasts long into the following years.”
An unconventional romance novel that manages to actually capture the subtleties of the on-again-off-again relationship, Normal People is also a book for anyone who’s had to deal with class differences in a close relationship (romantic or otherwise). This is ultimately a book about navigating school, relationships, politics, and romance as a young adult, and trying to figure out where exactly you fit in when you feel like you don’t have one specific role to fill, and I’d recommend it to anyone who feels ever so slightly out of sync with the people around them.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. “A shocking, hilarious and strangely tender novel about a young woman’s experiment in narcotic hibernation, aided and abetted by one of the worst psychiatrists in the annals of literature. Our narrator has many of the advantages of life, on the surface. Young, thin, pretty, a recent Columbia graduate, she lives in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan paid for, like everything else, by her inheritance. But there is a vacuum at the heart of things, and it isn’t just the loss of her parents in college, or the way her Wall Street boyfriend treats her, or her sadomasochistic relationship with her alleged best friend. It’s the year 2000 in a city aglitter with wealth and possibility; what could be so terribly wrong?”
Though the specific circumstances of the narrator’s life are probably difficult for most people to relate to (among other things she is rich, pretty, and rude to absolutely everyone in her life), this book cuts to the core of depression and ennui in a way that I did not expect to relate to so much when I first started reading. This is also the book for anyone who has a caustic and irreverent sense of humor, or anyone who’s had a difficult relationship with their parents, or anyone who struggles to form attachments to other people. Moshfegh excels at unlikable female protagonists, and though the vast majority of us are not nearly as awful as the protagonist of this novel, we can probably all see some of our own complexity in her.
Almost Love by Louise O’Neill. “When Sarah falls for Matthew, she falls hard. So it doesn’t matter that he’s twenty years older. That he sees her only in secret. That, slowly but surely, she’s sacrificing everything else in her life to be with him. Sarah’s friends are worried. Her father can’t understand how she could allow herself to be used like this. And she’s on the verge of losing her job. But Sarah can’t help it. She is addicted to being desired by Matthew. And love is supposed to hurt. Isn’t it?“
Whether or not you’ve been in a destructive relationship with a large age gap, this is the kind of book I think is going to resonate for most young women. Sarah allows her relationship to be shaped by societal expectations of what love is supposed to look and feel like, and there’s some sharp commentary here on the fact that sometimes women stay in terrible relationships because we’re raised to feel like being wanted by men is the highest form of validation we can receive. Coupled with fantastic observations about how women aren’t taught to view their bodies for their own pleasure, this is the kind of feminist contemporary that’s going to infuriate you, get under your skin, and force you to draw parallels to your own life when applicable.
The Pisces by Melissa Broder. “Lucy has been writing her dissertation about Sappho for thirteen years when she and Jamie break up. After she hits rock bottom in Phoenix, her Los Angeles-based sister insists Lucy housesit for the summer—her only tasks caring for a beloved diabetic dog and trying to learn to care for herself. Annika’s home is a gorgeous glass cube atop Venice Beach, but Lucy can find no peace from her misery and anxiety—not in her love addiction group therapy meetings, not in frequent Tinder meetups, not in Dominic the foxhound’s easy affection, not in ruminating on the ancient Greeks. Yet everything changes when Lucy becomes entranced by an eerily attractive swimmer one night while sitting alone on the beach rocks.”
There are two entirely unrelated elements of this book that I connected to, that I think MANY young adults will be able to connect to: the first is struggling with academic burnout, and the second is the narrator’s fear of intimacy. One facet of academia that is SO common and SO under-examined in the academic novel is burnout and ennui; though this isn’t a ‘campus novel’ (it is not at all set on a campus), the protagonist is working on her PhD throughout the novel and we get to examine the toll that that takes once she becomes disillusioned with her thesis. Running alongside that is her unconventional but highly sympathetic search for love, which she looks for in all the wrong places, and which Broder actually examines rather than writing it off as her just being inexplicably doomed with romance. It’s an intelligent, nuanced book that also gives voice to mental illness and the role that plays in Lucy’s inability to sustain healthy relationships.
Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton. “Louise has nothing. Lavinia has everything. After a chance encounter, the two spiral into an intimate, intense, and possibly toxic friendship. A Talented Mr. Ripley for the digital age, this seductive story takes a classic tale of obsession and makes it irresistibly new.“
This book is for anyone who’s had to work five shitty jobs to get by, who’s fantasized about escaping into a glamorous and elite life, and who’s willing to make sacrifices to make their goals happen. Louise’s character arc is harrowing, and most people (hopefully) are not going to recognize themselves in her character at the end of the book, but feeling a strong connection to her toward the beginning helped me get so invested in this story, which is why the second half was able to hit so hard.
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride. “Upon her arrival in London, an 18-year-old Irish girl begins anew as a drama student, with all the hopes of any young actress searching for the fame she’s always dreamed of. She struggles to fit in—she’s young and unexotic, a naive new girl—but soon she forges friendships and finds a place for herself in the big city. Then she meets an attractive older man. He’s an established actor, 20 years older, and the inevitable clamorous relationship that ensues is one that will change her forever.”
This is another Relationship Book that’s going to appeal to anyone who’s dated someone much older, but it still has a lot to offer outside that. The thing that really got me invested was the fact that the protagonist leaves her home and goes to university in a city far away and feels compelled to reinvent herself once she gets there – I think that’s going to mirror the experiences of a lot of young people who have chosen to make a similar leap.
Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon. “Lu Rile is a relentlessly focused young photographer struggling to make ends meet. Working three jobs, responsible for her aging father, and worrying that the crumbling warehouse she lives in is being sold to developers, she is at a point of desperation. One day, in the background of a self-portrait, Lu accidentally captures on film a boy falling past her window to his death. The photograph turns out to be startlingly gorgeous, the best work of art she’s ever made. It’s an image that could change her life…if she lets it.”
I want everyone to read this book because it’s so brilliant, but I’d especially recommend it to artists who like to grapple with the role that morality gets to play in art. But this is also a book about making decisions that will shape the rest of your life when you’re too young to be able to fully understand their repercussions. It’s also about carving your own identity and trying to launch a career when you’re barely making enough money to get by, and having to constantly push past that exhausting hurdle.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. “Keiko Furukura had always been considered a strange child, and her parents always worried how she would get on in the real world, so when she takes on a job in a convenience store while at university, they are delighted for her. For her part, in the convenience store she finds a predictable world mandated by the store manual, which dictates how the workers should act and what they should say, and she copies her coworkers’ style of dress and speech patterns so that she can play the part of a normal person. However, eighteen years later, at age 36, she is still in the same job, has never had a boyfriend, and has only few friends. She feels comfortable in her life, but is aware that she is not living up to society’s expectations and causing her family to worry about her. When a similarly alienated but cynical and bitter young man comes to work in the store, he will upset Keiko’s contented stasis—but will it be for the better?”
If you’re the kind of person who’s ever been regarded as an oddity for marching to the beat of your own drum, this is the book for you. Convenience Store Woman explores what it means to be happy when your definition of happiness doesn’t coincide with everybody else’s, and what happens when you start to allow societal expectations to infringe upon your unconventional life. Though the protagonist is one of the oldest on this list, I would absolutely consider this a book for millennials and gen Z, as so many of our life goals are no longer fitting into the narrative that we’re sold from a young age (that we have to get married and have 2.5 kids to feel fulfilled).
Running by Cara Hoffman. “Bridey Sullivan, a young American woman who has fled a peculiar and traumatic upbringing in Washington State, takes up with a queer British couple, the poet Milo Rollack and Eton drop-out Jasper Lethe. Slipping in and out of homelessness, addiction, and under-the-table jobs, they create their own kind of family as they struggle to survive.”
This is a book about youth, grief, trauma, and found families, which I’d recommend to readers who’ve had an unconventional upbringing or who feel out of place in their own society, only to seek solace in a different country’s culture. This is also the kind of book that explores how indelible those relationships can be that you make when you’re young.
Chemistry by Weike Wang. “Three years into her graduate studies at a demanding Boston university, the unnamed narrator of this nimbly wry, concise debut finds her one-time love for chemistry is more hypothesis than reality. She’s tormented by her failed research–and reminded of her delays by her peers, her advisor, and most of all by her Chinese parents, who have always expected nothing short of excellence from her throughout her life. But there’s another, nonscientific question looming: the marriage proposal from her devoted boyfriend, a fellow scientist, whose path through academia has been relatively free of obstacles, and with whom she can’t make a life before finding success on her own.”
Chemistry is about the perils of your identity and self-worth being inextricably tied up in your academic performance. This book is for readers who have struggled with mental illness while in an intensive academic setting, but I’d also recommend it to anyone who was raised by parents from another country (in this case China) – it also incisively explores that unique relationship.
Tender by Belinda McKeon. “When they meet in Dublin in the late nineties, Catherine and James become close as two friends can be. She is a sheltered college student, he an adventurous, charismatic young artist. In a city brimming with possibilities, he spurs her to take life on with gusto. But as Catherine opens herself to new experiences, James’s life becomes a prison; as changed as the new Ireland may be, it is still not a place in which he feels able to truly be himself. Catherine, grateful to James and worried for him, desperately wants to help — but as time moves on, and as life begins to take the friends in different directions, she discovers that there is a perilously fine line between helping someone and hurting them further. When crisis hits, Catherine finds herself at the mercy of feelings she cannot control, leading her to jeopardize all she holds dear.”
Catherine is a protagonist for anyone with an obsessive personality, who’s more emotionally fragile than they’d like to let on; James is a character for anyone who’s unable to be as free as they’d like in their sexuality due to societal restrictions. This is a heartbreaking story about two people who love each other in very different ways, who are each dealing with their own demons.
The Idiot by Elif Batuman. “The year is 1995, and email is new. Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, arrives for her freshman year at Harvard. She signs up for classes in subjects she has never heard of, befriends her charismatic and worldly Serbian classmate, Svetlana, and, almost by accident, begins corresponding with Ivan, an older mathematics student from Hungary. Selin may have barely spoken to Ivan, but with each email they exchange, the act of writing seems to take on new and increasingly mysterious meanings.”
And finally: this seemed like a good one to end on because it is the most represented I have ever personally felt by any novel that I’ve read. The protagonist, Selin, primarily plays the role of an observer to the feels constantly at odds with her fellow classmates; she finds that she doesn’t fully understand social norms that everyone else seems to accept without question, and she endeavors to understand it all through keen examination. This book asks the question of whether you’re able to ever truly know another person; it highlights banal absurdities of academia that we tend to tacitly accept; it forces us to consider the role of language in the way we relate to other people, and how deceptively restrictive language can be. It’s a book for young people who seem ‘normal’ but don’t really feel it, who want to understand how exactly they fit into the world around them.
If you’ve read any of these books as a young adult, did you feel like you were able to relate to them on a personal level? And which adult books about young adults would you recommend? Comment and let me know!