17 Insightful Coming-of-Age Books for Adults

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Coming-of-age plots are a staple of YA books, as the changes of adolescence and the transition to adulthood have special relevancy to the teenage perspective. But adults can benefit from coming-of-age stories too. Gaining some distance from your own experience of growing up provides a place from which to reflect more deeply on the experiences of others, and any thoughtful story that leads readers through the inevitable, pivotal changes we all encounter in certain early stages of life is likely to give book groups something relatable and interesting to talk about. Plus, we never really stop growing, and "coming of age" is a murky concept that can stretch well into adulthood. Luckily, there's no shortage of evocative and insightful coming-of-age books for adults, and we've put together a list for you containing some of the best from recent years.

All the books below have been rated five stars by our reviewers, and they all come with reading guides to help you organize quality conversations with your book club. They feature a range of young people, from children to 20-somethings still struggling to find their place in the world, across a wide variety of life circumstances and settings.

Honorée Fannone Jeffers The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois
by Honorée Fannone Jeffers

Paperback May 2022. 816 pages
Published by Harper Perennial

Ailey is the youngest of three daughters born to Belle and Geoff Garfield, and we meet her when she is just three years old. Through her first-person account, we watch her mature from naïve child to confident and capable young woman, sharing her joys, sorrows, triumphs and failures along the way. Although at its heart the novel is a coming-of-age story, that's not apparent until late in the book due to the various narrative techniques the author employs. A large and equally engaging portion of the story is historical fiction, following Ailey's ancestors from village life in Africa to their experiences being enslaved on a Georgia plantation and beyond. Other chapters are relayed from the points of view of Belle and Lydia, Ailey's eldest sister. These third-person accounts fill in gaps in Ailey's knowledge while providing us with a comprehensive understanding of how she grows into the person we know at the book's conclusion. (Kim Kovacs)

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Ashley Ford Somebody's Daughter

Somebody's Daughter: A Memoir
by Ashley C. Ford

Paperback May 2022. 224 pages
Published by Flatiron Books

In this powerful debut memoir, Ashley C. Ford explores what it means to have grown up Black and poor in contemporary America, dissecting a childhood defined by sexual assault, her father's incarceration, and the complex relationship she shared with her mother. Ford makes shrewd observations on everything from the guilt felt by working class people who achieve financial security, to the push and pull between love and duty when it comes to family. At its core, Somebody's Daughter is fundamentally about Ford's attempts to forgive others and accept herself, a journey sure to resonate with many. (Callum McLaughlin)

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Sarah Elaine Smith Marilou Is Everywhere

Marilou Is Everywhere
by Sarah Elaine Smith

Paperback Jul 2020. 288 pages
Published by Riverhead Books

Cindy might be only a teenager, but her first-person narration is sophisticated and her language both perceptive and lyrical. Smith is a published poet, so perhaps it's not surprising that her narrator utters lines like "So I was jealous of her. That was the problem. Take me instead, I begged the air. Maybe the shimmer that took her was still hungry." This elegance of prose might come off as unrealistic, except for the fact that Smith also imbues her narrator with truly authentic teenage naïveté, not to mention adolescent resentment: "Why, why, why is what everyone would cry at my funeral, all except my mother, because she'd know. She'd know it was because she abandoned us." (Norah Piehl)

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Trent Dalton Boy Swallows Universe

Boy Swallows Universe
by Trent Dalton

Paperback Apr 2020. 480 pages
Published by Harper Perennial

Debut novelist Trent Dalton has crafted an alluring and literary account of the coming-of-age of two brothers who manage to thrive despite their parents' destructive habits. Boy Swallows Universe calls to mind other memorable child heroes like Huckleberry Finn or Holden Caulfield. The novel will likely appeal to fans of Cormac McCarthy (cited by the author as a literary influence) as well. (Karen Lewis)

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Leila Mottley Nightcrawling

by Leila Mottley

Paperback Apr 11, 2023. 304 pages
Published by Vintage

In an Author's Note at the end of Nightcrawling, Leila Mottley explains that she began writing the book at age 17, while "contemplating what it means to be vulnerable, unprotected, and unseen." Mottley's protagonist Kiara Johnson is all of these things, and her story is a testament to how these factors limit a person's agency. Kiara's interior monologue is shot through with the dreamy, poetic sensibility of a young person who comes to see the world as it really is, but nevertheless has not lost hope. Kiara also comes to understand her own needs more fully — "And I am still waiting to be hit by some universe-halting love that will turn me inside out and remove all the rotting parts of me" — and that expressing and pursuing those needs in the face of systemic abuse is a radical act. (Lisa Butts)

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Douglas Stuart Young Mungo

Young Mungo
by Douglas Stuart

Paperback Mar 21, 2023. 416 pages
Published by Grove Press

Douglas Stuart's Young Mungo follows a crucial year in the life of Mungo Hamilton, a boy growing up in the difficult world of Glasgow's East End estates. A cornerstone of the novel is Mungo's relationship with James, a young pigeon enthusiast whose doocot (the Glaswegian pronunciation of "dovecote," a structure for housing pigeons) becomes a sanctuary against the brutality of the estates. Their innocent exploration of their feelings for each other contrasts strongly with the accusatory adults around them, who seem to pinpoint and condemn Mungo's sexuality long before he himself becomes aware of it. Above all else, Young Mungo is a brilliant study of the demands of a particular kind of masculinity, one that equates feeling with weakness and callousness with strength. In trying to help "make a man" of Mungo, those around him, even those that love him, expose him to cruelty and violence. (Grace Graham-Taylor)

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Kyle Lucia Wu Win Me Something

Win Me Something
by Kyle Lucia Wu

Paperback Nov 2021. 272 pages
Published by Tin House Books

Kyle Lucia Wu's Win Me Something opens with a young woman named Willa explaining that she did not feel cared for in the family environment in which she was raised. Yet she has applied to care for someone else. She is interviewing with Nathalie Adrien, who lives in the affluent Tribeca neighborhood of New York City with her husband Gabe and is seeking a nanny for their nine-year-old daughter, Bijou. Willa is at an age where one is still living the direct consequences of childhood, where it feels perversely like everything is happening over and over while also still happening for the first time. That tedium and helplessness is reflected in her early narration. But Win Me Something isn't about Willa's suffering or lack of power. It isn't about her taking back power, either. It's a subtly rendered and satisfying story of someone on the verge of beginning to know herself — gentle and confident in its shifts of direction, blossoming in complexity like a fine wine as it opens into the reader's mind. (Elisabeth Cook)

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David Hopen The Orchard

The Orchard
by David Hopen

Paperback Aug 2021. 400 pages
Published by Ecco

The protagonist of David Hopen's first novel, The Orchard, is 17-year-old Aryeh Eden, a Brooklyn boy raised in a Hasidic household where daily life revolves around strict observance of Orthodox Judaic tradition. When his father's job change forces Aryeh and his parents to relocate to Florida, the teen enrolls in a yeshiva (an Orthodox Jewish school) that is far more worldly than the one he left behind in New York. As a coming-of-age saga, the book is entertaining, with an interesting protagonist, well-drawn characters and vividly described situations that may be uncomfortably familiar to those of us glad our youthful mistakes are behind us. What sets it apart, though, is its philosophical framing. The quest for knowledge leads to the plot's crisis, not teenage hijinks as one might expect in a typical book of this genre. This aspect transforms the novel from simply a well-written but forgettable tale into one that settles in the mind and heart, requiring rumination long after turning the last page. (Kim Kovacs)

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Susie Yang White Ivy

White Ivy
by Susie Yang

Paperback Jul 2021. 368 pages
Published by Simon & Schuster

In many ways, Ivy Lin, the protagonist of Susie Yang's debut novel White Ivy, typifies the story of a first-generation immigrant — she has to navigate issues of language, culture and social integration. For Ivy, this difficult process is the site of a schism between who she was as a child in China and the hyphenated version of herself that develops in America. In the vein of Tom Ripley and other social climbing literary characters, Ivy is acutely damaged. But as the novel progresses, the source of this damage remains unclear. Or rather, the source seems to be dispersed throughout every area of her life. White Ivy has been described as a thriller, a dark romance, a coming-of-age story and more. This excellent and thought-provoking novel is as difficult to classify and unpredictable as Ivy herself. But one thing is certain — readers won't soon forget it, nor its complex protagonist, Ivy Lin. (Debbie Morrison)

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Jennifer Weiner Mrs. Everything

Mrs. Everything
by Jennifer Weiner

Paperback Apr 2020. 480 pages
Published by Washington Square Press

Mrs. Everything spans six decades of an American family. We meet the Kaufman sisters Josette 'Jo' and Elizabeth 'Bethie' in 1951 Detroit. The girls grow up during an era where civil rights and women's roles will be challenged and transformed. Their mom Sarah, however, is not liberated. She's intolerant of any behavior that doesn't conform with tradition; she has difficulty making ends meet, especially after her husband dies unexpectedly. As Jo and Bethie come of age, the sisters struggle to form healthy bonds, find their own voices, and move beyond a strict upbringing. Book groups: gather those vintage gelatin dessert recipes and hunker down for astonishing discussions. This novel holds power to crack through decades of silence, family secrets, and hidden aspects of self. (Karen Lewis)

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Sally Rooney Normal People

Normal People
by Sally Rooney

Paperback Feb 2020. 304 pages
Published by Hogarth Books

It's a trick of culture that the peculiar girl and the handsome boy find one another beguiling. Marianne has financial resources but is missing love. Connell has love but is being raised by a single mother. They share academic stardom – and loneliness – and they soon become secret lovers in that laconic way of the very young who think by being together they are somehow tricking the world. Sally Rooney curates the cynical beauty of millennials better than any fiction writer I have read, and it is her greatest instrument as a writer, this tragicomedy oeuvre, that forces you to stay reading after you told yourself you would stop and go to bed. (Valerie Morales)

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 Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman Sounds Like Titanic

Sounds Like Titanic: A Memoir
by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman

Paperback Feb 2020. 256 pages
Published by W.W. Norton & Company

In the age of fake news, why not a story of fake music? Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman, a middling concert violinist from West Virginia, is hired on for a national tour with a well-known, yet unnamed composer. Her musical skills, no matter how good or bad, make no difference, since what she plays isn't heard by the audience. What they hear is simply music played from the composer's CD player (Mamie N). Reading this book, I felt I was in the hands of someone wise, honest and very real (Joan R). Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman might not be a great violinist, but she's a very entertaining writer. Her humor engaged me from the start (Nanette C). This book was very well written, with deep insights into growing up a self-avowed "average" person who thought she could work herself into being gifted (Judy K).

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Sarah Moss Ghost Wall

Ghost Wall: A Novel
by Sarah Moss

Paperback Dec 2019. 144 pages
Published by Picador

16-year-old Silvie is assisting her parents on a historical reenactment project, guiding a team of young adult archaeology students (Peter, Dan and Molly) and their professor Jim on a short course to practice traditional bushcraft. This involves adopting the clothing and tools of the ancient Picts who thrived in Northumberland before the Romans conquered the region in the mid-first century A.D. Silvie is preoccupied—and rightfully so—with what the land provides versus what humans take. She comes off as an eco-warrior, keen to conserve, not gathering more than necessary, and tuned into the land's patterns and cycles. Yet, she is uncertain of her place in the modern world, where she fits in, whether she will ever attend university, or even whether she wants to. In Ghost Wall, much emotional energy vibrates beneath the surface of scene and dialogue. (Karen Lewis)

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Dana Czapnik The Falconer

The Falconer
by Dana Czapnik

Paperback Oct 2019. 304 pages
Published by Washington Square Press

The Falconer is an instant female coming-of-age classic replete with 1990s nostalgia; equal parts cinematic and contemplative, cynical and doggedly hopeful. Dana Czapnik's protagonist will undoubtedly draw comparisons to Holden Caulfield, the archetype of teenage misanthropy, but she is so much more than that — a completely original and exceptional creation. It is frankly shocking that this is Czapnik's debut novel; to get it this right on the first shot is a tremendous rarity. Lucy is whip-smart (more clever than people presume girls her age to be), but not unrealistically so. She is insecure and she is stupid in the ways that girls her age can be (myopically boy crazy). She is someone I want to know and someone I once was at the same time. Lucy learns a lot about what kind of woman she wants to be over the course of the novel, but she learns even more about what kind of person she wants to be, and it is an absolute pleasure to take this journey along with her. (Lisa Butts)

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Nafkote Tamirat The Parking Lot Attendant

The Parking Lot Attendant
by Nafkote Tamirat

Paperback Aug 2019. 240 pages
Published by Picador

In The Parking Lot Attendant, the young, unnamed female narrator's coming-of-age is interrupted by her introduction to the titular character, a charismatic Ethiopian-American pseudo-revolutionary named Ayale. This man becomes a father figure, a mentor, and ultimately a harbinger of doom to the teenage heroine in a story where the mundane becomes mythical, and then the mythical turns tragic. Tamirat makes some salient points about identity—how young people pine restively for a sense of self, how immigrants often feel stuck between two cultures—and the human susceptibility to brainwashing, particularly during adolescence. The narrator's retrospective realizations about her relationship with Ayale are heartbreaking. Though the narrative is rather bleak, The Parking Lot Attendant contains surprising moments of comedy, thanks to the whip-smart and charming narrator, and her capacity for loving someone (even though he is the book's villain) is touching. (Lisa Butts)

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Esi Edugyan Washington Black

Washington Black
by Esi Edugyan

Paperback Apr 2019. 400 pages
Published by Vintage

Edugyan weaves a thrilling yarn that unfolds slowly, peeling back layers and revealing hidden depths. This is, at once, a coming of age tale, an exploration of slavery from inside and outside the plantation, and a skip-along through a variety of scientific discoveries. Washington Black, born a slave in Barbados in the 1830s, never expected much beyond a life of hard toil and pain. Yet he was rescued, suddenly, by the enigmatic brother of his master – a scientist in need of an assistant. Together they traverse the world, from the West Indies all the way to the Arctic Circle and beyond. Washington becomes a man of learning and an artist; he blazes a path that is unlike any he ever believed possible. (Natalie Vaynberg)

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Shobha Rao Girls Burn Brighter

Girls Burn Brighter
by Shobha Rao

Paperback Mar 2019. 400 pages
Published by Flatiron Books

What does it take to win your own freedom? What will you do for love? How do you take power when it was never given to you? Set in the small village of Indravalli in India in 2001, Girls Burn Brighter answers these questions and more, as it spins its take on what roles freedom, love, and power play in the lives of two young, impoverished girls growing up in rural India. With vivid language and breathtaking sincerity, Shobha Rao weaves together the lives of Poornima and Savitha, pitting the two girls' friendship against the world, and proving that power can be taken—as well as granted. (Grace Symes)

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