Inspired by Howards End and beginning with a similar correspondence, Smith’s novel about a mixed-race family is a kind of modern retelling, though incredibly different because of the social issues she chooses to look at, and which she can be more vocal about than anyone in the early 20th century. Not only is the novel about a mixed-race marriage—with all the tensions that entails for the children born into it—it’s also about being both American and English, about having two homes in a sense, and about dealing with leaving, returning, making choices, screwing up, and trying to fix things that may be unfixable.
Hesse’s fictionalized account of the Buddha (or a buddha, depending on which tradition you’re going with) takes the reader through the various life stages that led this figure to his enlightenment. There’s a journey here, one that Hesse explores through matter-of-fact language paired with spirituality. From the moment of leaving home to the attainment of a life of riches to the desertion of all things material, there’s an element of a spiritual bildungsroman to Siddhartha, and it’s that facet that feels like such essential reading. Whether you take the spirituality into account or not, the book leaves you with many questions to ponder.
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)
Mindy Kaling’s funny, charming, and often poignant collection sometimes feels like she’s looked into your brain and found your own concerns in there, taken them out, and put them into words. From the very title—which resonates with more of us than we’d like to admit it, I’d wager—to the topics Kaling covers (fame, failure, day jobs, creativity, love, and more), there’s nothing better to epitomize the way our twenties drive us a little bit mad, a little bit sad, but ultimately, a little bit rad.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Cousins Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay are united when Joe, a magician and escape artist, pulls off the ultimate escape by leaving Europe behind on the brink of World War II and moving to the United States. As the age of comics not only dawns but turns golden, the cousins try to cash in by creating their own paper-and-pen heroes. A book about dreams fulfilled, broken, shattered, and achieved, Chabon’s masterpiece of a book is a must-read for everyone, but especially those of us struggling through the mires of will-we-won’t-we-make-it.
A Visit from the Goon Squad
A novel or collection of linked short stories (depending on who you ask), Egan’s book is a masterpiece of character and plot. Starting with Bennie and Sasha, entwined in the music business but each with their own problems and insecurities, Egan then spins us off into past and future, going into the intimate details of a host of lives connected to the central characters. There’s something in here for each of us, whether it’s in Sasha’s attempts to understand herself, in her uncle’s sense of stuckness, in Bennie’s feeling of failure, or in his mentor’s love life spiraling out of control. The unusual tempo makes Egan’s work a triumph.
The World According to Garp
Far ahead of its time, John Irving explores issues that we’re still grappling with today in his masterful novel. Garp was born to a feminist who wanted a child but not a partner, and he’s raised to be somewhat unconventional in his thinking. A wrestler, a lover, a writer, Garp is a complex man, as are the characters around him. One of the earliest mainstream novels to feature a trans woman who’s respected and loved, Irving looks beyond masculinity to gender itself, as well as to universal topics of friendship, love, loyalty, and family. And, perhaps most importantly of all, the madness that is all lives lived.
E. M. Forster
Forster’s novel about turn-of-the-century England explores social class, relationships, freedoms and lack thereof. The novel looks at three families’ offspring and their different ambitions, desires, education, prejudices, and more. A social commentary of its time, the novel is nevertheless still relevant. Illness and death, loss of property and eviction due to development, family chosen rather than born into—these are all things that begin to become clearer realities to us as we mature. Issues of economic insecurity are also explored, along with career changes and the need to care for others. A novel about responsibility and family, it often hits close to home, even though it’s been over 100 years since its publication.
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
It’s perhaps a testament to Munro’s masterful talent (she did win a Nobel, after all) that two of the short stories from this collection have been adapted into films (Away From Her and Hateship, Loveship). As with all Munro’s collections, this one contains multitudes. From Johanna, a housekeeper from the title story, to Nina, who returns home to find her husband has committed suicide, the stories deal with women facing a variety of difficult situations, be it socioeconomic class, death and mental illness, or loneliness. The women in these stories aren’t the kind who simply triumph over adversity—rather, they provide a roadmap of different scenarios that will afflict most of us during the course of our lives. These women are by turns beloved, pathetic, inspirational, beautiful, disturbing, and wonderful.
The Portrait of a Lady
Isabel Archer is the famous heroine of James’ classic, and her character is one that many women may feel a connection to at various times throughout the book, as she goes through changes of heart and home. She evolves from a recently orphaned American to a popular expat in Europe to a lustful woman who believes herself in love with the seemingly sophisticated Osmand to a stepmother to a miserable but proud woman. Ultimately, though, she’s an intelligent woman who follows her feelings and believes in herself. She’s often wrong, like any of us, but she’s also stubborn and resilient, and her love for her family is heartrending.
You may recall the Academy Award-winning film Precious; as is often the case with such moving works of fiction, the novel came before the film. Push was Sapphire’s debut novel, and it looks at an illiterate 16-year-old in Harlem: Precious, who’s both mother and sister to her first child, and is now pregnant with her second while under the thumb of her abusive mother. Precious enrolls in a new school where she learns to read and write and is inspired by black women writers who came before her. Her story doesn’t end with this inspirational time, though; her trials and tribulations continue beyond the point of endurance. However, as difficult as this novel is, it’s as essential as those predecessors that Precious finds inspiring, including Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, and Langston Hughes.
Bird by Bird
There are many books for writers out there, but Lamott’s book is only partially about writing. In essence, it’s about living—in her case, living as a writer with faith in God, but applicable to anyone living with creativity running through their veins. Lamott goes through issues of writing, like getting started on terrible first drafts, but her advice—written in a funny and relatable way—is ultimately universal. The title comes from a wonderful memory that encapsulates her approach to writing as well as trying to live well: “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day… my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name
Geraldine Audre Lorde
This 1982 biography (or, as she referred to it, biomythography) of the poet and writer Audre Lorde vividly recalls the details of her youth. She recounts learning to read early, witnessing death at a young age, being subjected to systemic racism in Washington, D.C., as well as creating friendships, attaining an education, and discovering her sexuality. She also focuses on her mother, a central figure in her life, and ends the book with an homage to her. Full of poignancy and the beautiful writing characteristic of Lorde, this book should be on all our shelves.
There’s a reason quarter-life crises are an actual thing now: your twenties are rough. They’ve probably always been difficult (science has things to say about hormones and such), but in our times, at least in much of the Western world, there’s the pressure of trying to figure out how to adult, as it were. On the upside, your twenties are basically the prime time to screw up left and right—and to learn from it. During that time, there are vital books that can speak to you, make you feel more welcome in the world and more secure in your experimentation. This list is by no means comprehensive, but it’s a great start.
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