Several weeks back, we found ourselves reminiscing in a local coffee shop, asking each other where all of the good coming of age stories had gone. Both of us remember being moved and forever changed by Maya Angelou’s classic I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings . Published in 1969, its poetic prose and strong heroine has influenced generations of readers and helped to alter the conversation about racism and sexual trauma. It also demonstrated that autobiography could be excellent literature.
This conversation prompted us to search for more recently published, also first-rate coming of age stories. And while Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings inspired us, the choices offered below are very different from her seminal book. None are memoirs, but all address their characters’ quests for independence and their attempts at self-definition – and each one is very, very good.
The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel (May 2012) – A coming of age story about five friends – four of whom were in a talented instrumental quartet in a Florida High School, one of whom ultimately was a girlfriend to two of the band members. Because traits of the heat of Florida, the sprawl of north Miami and the abandonment of post-2008 real estate collapses play as much of a part of this story as the choices each character makes, Florida often acts as another character.
When the quartet separates both geographically and lifestyle-wise after their last concert (on the back of a pickup truck), each and every one makes bad, bad choices. This novel unravels what happens as a result of those choices and how youth’s promise is squandered (college scholarships and jobs are lost, addictions develop, in short, people “come undone”). And yet, somehow, the novel remains hopeful – life goes on and people do learn. I would describe this as a well paced ”beach” read. Lisa Christie
Friends Like Us by Lauren Fox (2012): So if 40 is the new 30, then is 26 the new 16? Some might question including this title in a coming of age post as Friends Like Us is a book about a trio of twenty-somethings, friendship, and falling in love in the city of Milwaukee. But what really struck me about it was each character’s quest to grow up, to launch into full-fledged adulthood and out of first apartments furnished with curbside finds, Ikea, and roommates. It is simultaneously a comedy and a tragedy: 26-year-old Willa Jacobs is an achingly funny, smart, and observant narrator whom we meet just as she reunites with her best friend, Ben, from high school at a reunion; the plot thickens when Ben falls in love with Willa’s new best friend and roommate, Jane. This is an extremely well written, clever book that examines the choices that define us but also one that offers a window of insight into the tricky world – minefield? – of careers and relationships that is currently being navigated by a generation of American twenty-somethings. Lisa Cadow
The Book Of Jonas by Stephen Dau (2012) — A truly spare and haunting book about a young Muslim war orphan, and of the American soldier to whom his fate is bound. Jonas lives in an unnamed Muslim country when his family is killed by US Armed forces. With the help of a relief organization he lands in Pittsburgh, PA and finds a foster family, college scholarship and a powerful girlfriend. However, the adjustment is not all that it seems, and eventually, he tells a court-mandated counselor and therapist about a U.S. soldier who saved his life. This leads to the meeting of the soldier’s mother who is searching for any information about what happened to her son. The novel explores the choices people make as they mature into adults, and how people adjust to the ultimate tragedy – loss of loved ones. The Book of Jonas allows the reader to look at the terrible choices made during war, how people deal with the unknown and what happens when disaster appears in your own life. Lisa Christie
Book Jam Note: We dedicate this post to Nora Searle, a lovely person who was not given the opportunity to finish adolescence, but who, while alive, showed so many people how to live with grace, style, beauty, love and laughter.