In the new book Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?, the mother-daughter team of Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig explores the difficulties facing young people in today's society--including identity exploration, instability, and self-focus. Do yourself a favor and pick up the book, as well as some of these 10 books, selected by the Henigs, which will help get the twentysomething in your life on the right track.
The most uplifting news we've read recently about Millennials, the one that counters all the negative stereotypes about them as lazy, entitled, narcissistic, and shallow, is that they love books. In fact, a survey reported last summer noted that Millennials buy more books than Baby Boomers (30% of total sales for Millennials versus 24% for Boomers). The future of civilization is assured.
And in their typically self-obsessed way -- one generalization that's probably true, because it's developmentally appropriate to spend time thinking about yourself at a stage in life when your main task is figuring yourself out -- Millennials are probably buying books about other twentysomethings, the more disaffected the better. If they're not, they should be, because what better way to get through a period of uncertainty and shifting enthusiasms than to read great literature about characters doing pretty much the same thing? Here are 10 of our favorites.
1. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris - One thing about the twenties is how much you want to be part of a group, even when the group consists of a random hodgepodge of the people you work with. This smart office tragicomedy is narrated in first person plural throughout, and yet Ferris manages not to make it feel like a gimmick. The result is a richer understanding of the culture of work.
2. The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe - If Ferris’s novel is the precursor to “The Office,” then Jaffe's is the forerunner of “Mad Men” -- with a hint of “Sex and the City” thrown in. Three young women (an Ivy Leaguer, a country beauty, and a troubled actress) try to make it in New York in 1958, struggling with the typical twentysomething woes of heartache and career laments as well as the oppressive glass ceiling of the era.
3. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath - And speaking of work, this autobiographical novel about Plath's summer as a magazine intern is almost a cliché to mention here -- except that it perfectly captures the feeling of being young and at a crossroads. So perfectly, in fact, that we actually used an excerpt from The Bell Jar as the epigraph for our book Twentysomething. In that passage, Plath writes about imagining herself sitting in the crotch of a fig tree, surrounded by juicy figs that represent all her options as writer, traveler, wife, mother, athlete, lover, dozens of different paths her life could take. Leave it to Plath to capture the essential quandary: "choosing one meant losing all the rest."
4. Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee - Choices about work, school, and romance are at the heart of this juicy novel about a group of young people in Manhattan and their families, many of whom are Korean immigrants. Lee (who happens to be a close friend of ours) captures their struggles, uncertainty, and heartache in vivid detail; sometimes the characters feel so real you want to shake them to make them realize how badly they're screwing up.
5. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - This is a sprawling family novel, dealing with crises across the age range, but the turmoil of one character in particular, the younger sister Denise, are worth the price of admission. Franzen details Denise's evolution from slacker to restaurateur, from straight to bi, in a way that captures all the struggles inherent in the "quarterlife crisis" of someone who worries that she's made all the wrong choices and is living someone else's life.
6. Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler - And speaking of living someone else's life, Delia Grinstead thinks that's what she's doing, and one day at the beach she simply walks away from it. Delia is well past her twenties, but in trying to recreate a new identity, she goes through the same turmoil that twentysomethings do. The most poignant moments, to us, are the evenings she spends in her room in a boardinghouse after coming home from a lackluster job and a solitary meal: she gets into bed, reads for a while, and then switches off the lamp to "sit weeping in the dark -- the very last step in her daily routine." Change is hard.
7. Wild by Cheryl Strayed - OK, we have to admit here that we haven't read this one, a memoir about Strayed's decision to hike the Pacific Trail solo at the age of 26. But everyone says we should. They say it's a guide for life, a "just do it" for young people who are struggling with fears and uncertainty the way Strayed was after her mother died and her marriage dissolved. It's on our to-do list for 2013.
8. Alice in Bed by Cathleen Schine - Alice is a college student whose body fails her, landing her in a hospital for a year as doctors, nurses, and a bizarrely distracted mother swirl around her. Her feelings of helplessness and confusion, combined with some weird hallucinations and paranoid fantasies, are like youth writ large; Alice is literally paralyzed, a stand-in for young people who feel metaphorically so. And she gets through it the way so many people do -- by improvising.
9. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - The genetically ambiguous character at the heart of this novel is Calliope, who grows up as girl but ends up, sort of, as a man. The situation a perfect analogy for the confusion of young people who see every path as equally alluring and can't decide which is right for them. Many of the quandaries will feel familiar, as Callie-then-Cal struggles with choices that touch on matters of identity, sexuality, predestination, and free will. In addition, the book is hilarious.
10. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro - Or any collection of Alice Munro stories, really. Her stories are generally about young women choosing between two extremes: independence versus domesticity, acquiescence versus rebellion, staying put versus setting out. Since so many of the stories also bounce back and forth in time, the decisions of youth are often revisited, and their consequences over the life course are revealed.