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.
Ghosts by Cesar Aira
The strangest book on this list, Ghosts is another one of the great Argentine writer Cesar Aira's ambiguous, quick-footed novels. In a half-finished apartment building in Buenos Aires, the family of the resident watchman hosts a New Year's Eve party without realizing that there are also a floating series of priapic ghosts in attendance. Most sensitive to their presence is Patri, the watchman's fifteen-year-old daughter. Slowly the ghosts reach out to her, inviting her to a midnight supper. Do they represent maturity? Death? Sexual awakening? Improbably, given the story's surrealism, the dangers surrounding Patri come to seem intensely worrying -- perhaps because Aira understands the vulnerability of girls on the verge of womanhood, and how naturally and ardently we as readers take their part.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Part of what makes The Diary of Anne Frank so affecting is its intermittent moments of normalcy, when Anne seems more like a teenager than a figure in history. Marjane Satrapi's wonderful graphic novel has some of the same tension -- the sense that it's possible to be caught up in great and terrible events, and at the same time simply to be thirteen, to feel bored or spiteful or confused for reasons that have nothing to do with politics. Satrapi was a ten-year old in Iran when the Shah took power, and the first volume of her majestic graphic novel Persepolis covers the four years of her life before she left her homeland for school in Austria, and the mixed blessing of safety in exile.
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
In Japan, Norwegian Wood is as iconic a coming-of-age story as The Bell Jar or The Catcher in the Rye is here. Toro Watanabe, a man in his thirties, hears an orchestral arrangement of the Beatles song that gives the book its title, and is immediately transported to his time in college, and the two very different, elusive women he loved then. What makes the story spellbinding is that Murakami remains loyal to the impossible urgencies of one's college days, never dismissing in his maturity what it's like to be young and sure that everything depends on your next decision.
The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton
Before she wrote her trillion-word Booker-prize winner The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton released this scabrous, inventive novel about the young students at fictional Abbey Grange school. She was only 23 when it came out, and all the mean-spirited jokes and crushing insecurities of high school seem very, very recent in her mind. The book's hero, Isolde, has an older sister who recently had a scandalous affair with a music teacher. The theater kids and music kids surrounding Isolde seem to understand with horrible precision how to hurt each other, and the enduring effect of her story is to make us grateful, most of us anyway, that we're past coming of age -- that we've made it to the other side.