Mar 16 2012

Coming of Age

Leigh Stein



I came of age online in the late '90s. Some of the friends I made on listservs and LiveJournal at the time are still friends today, in "real life." I was blogging and keeping a diary online years before I even had a cell phone. In retrospect, participating in a space that was public but still felt anonymous has undeniably shaped my identity as a writer.

I wonder if coming-of-age novels are changing because coming-of-age itself is changing as adolescence becomes increasingly protracted. (Some critics have raised the "second adolescence" phenomenon when referring to my novel's twenty-two-year-old heroine.) When does maturity begin? At eighteen? At thirty? Forget the number of candles on the cake—my favorite coming-of-age novels are ones in which the private, interior lives of the protagonists emerge as each heroine tries to carve out her identity and independence. Growing up, I found solace in these books, the same way I found solace in online communities—as a remedy for adolescent isolation.

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger

Franny is an irresistibly attractive heroine of disenchantment. Like many young people, she wants desperately to be enlightened, and while at lunch with her übercollegiate boyfriend Lane, feels woozy under the pressures of small talk and college football. She has to excuse herself to go cry in the bathroom for a while, and seems to be on the edge of a nervous breakdown. But the story's ambiguity is one of its pleasures: Franny's zealous obsession with the Jesus Prayer, which she aims to repeat until it becomes as involuntary as her heartbeat, is weird and fascinating, and this short book (composed of a single short story, "Franny," and a novella, Zooey) is one that lends itself to re-readings.

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

Eugenides's debut novel is about boys and the girls who haunt them. From the very first sentence, I was drawn into the story of how the sad Lisbon sisters offed themselves, told in a male first-person plural that watches them from a distance: "On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope." While playing the role of the voyeur, I also empathized with the girls: I knew what it felt like to be caged in by my parents, to want to be gazed at, or at the very least, be remembered. Through the collective memories of the boys who live near the sisters, Eugenides paints a textured picture of a devastating subject.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

I confess: I open my own novel with a recap of current events in a nod to The Bell Jar's beginning, "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York." I also borrowed Plath's protagonist's name, Esther. In this novel, Esther is "supposed to be having the time of [her] life," having won an internship at a fashion magazine in New York for the summer. But instead of the time of her life, she has a nervous breakdown. My copy is a yellowed paperback edition from 1975. On the back, a blurb from Robert Scholes at the New York Times Book Review tells us this is "the kind of book Salinger's Franny might have written about herself ten years later, if she had spent those ten years in Hell." As a teen, I loved reading about Esther's depressive descent through Plath's cool lens: "Show us how happy it makes you to write a poem." Esther suffers from being "special"—talented, yet tortured.

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

From the annex where she hid with her family from Nazi persecution for two years, Frank wrote poignantly about the sturm und drang of being thirteen years old in a way that has resonated with millions of readers around the world. Diary is not a novel, but a record of a young woman's journey to maturity, and in reading it, we watch her grow up in real time. If you love Anne as much as I do, don't miss Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife by Francine Prose.

The Hanged Man by Francesca Lia Block

The Hanged Man is Young Adult lit at its best and darkest. Block sets her book in a version of Los Angeles that initially seems as magical as Hogwarts or Narnia, where even "the lamplight is pink because of the ballerina tutu…placed over the lampshade." After her father dies, Laurel grieves and starves herself under the Hollywood sign, wishing to be a child again. A tarot card introduces each chapter (when Laurel gets her period for the first time, china cups mysteriously fly around the room and break, making her the "Queen of Cups"). But after a lot of sex and a little heroin, the final chapter opens with a card representing strength.

Leigh Stein is the author of The Fallback Plan.

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