Coming of Age (for Adults)

Most of us have a favorite novel from adolescence in which we passionately identified with the central character as he or she struggled with the state of the world. These are often powerful books, such as Catcher in the Rye or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, that we read as we were just beginning to form our own view of how society worked and our place in it.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, our Everett Reads book for February, is intriguing to me since it is definitely a coming of age novel, but with the added element of being seen through the eyes of an adult. The central character of Henry is described as both an adult and an adolescent and both of these “selves” interact.  Perhaps it is my advancing years, but I have increasingly been drawn to books that look at youth through a more mature, and sometimes world-weary, narrator.

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson is a good example of this type of writing. Trond Sandler has retired to a small cabin on the border of Norway and Sweden. With few neighbors, and only a dog for company, he begins to remember a crucial summer from his youth when he last saw both his father and his best friend. This is a classic tale of slowly coming to terms with the past.

If you can handle more social isolation, definitely check out The Devil’s Footprints by John Burnside. Set in the fictional Scottish village of Coldhaven the narrator, confronted by the shocking death of an old girlfriend from school, is forced to revisit his own past in search for answers.  Written in stark prose that reflects the barren landscape, this is a disturbing yet memorable read.

Lest you think all reflective narrators are older men, take a look at the excellent Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Kathy, who is barely 30, seems to be too young to be reflecting on her school days at Hailsham. As this dystopian novel unfolds, however, you find that she is tragically nearing the end of her unnatural life cycle. This is a haunting and lyrical novel.

While it is almost impossible to do justice to it in a few sentences, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Youth: A Narrative by Joseph Conrad. This is Marlow’s tale, yes the Marlow, recounting his first trip to the East on the aging ship Judea. Conrad layers exquisite sentence upon exquisite sentence to create a work that is exciting, beautiful and full of meaning. This book is a slim novella, a short story really, so if you have shied away from this author’s work due to length have no fear.

Richard

6 thoughts on “Coming of Age (for Adults)

  1. I loved Stealing Horses-thanks for triggering memories of a good read. I so appreciate the other books of a similar nature-I will put them on my “to read” list-I love your reviews!. I wonder if you ever do reviews of audio books because the voice of the author comes to life in different ways-a haunting sound as well as story-

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  2. For comic insight into such matters nothing can beat Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.”. For emotional depth and wisdom about “coming of age” literature please, please, read Reynold Price’s “A Long and Happy Life.”
    Thanks for the suggestions in your blog.

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  3. Thanks for putting these books together in a single list. They seem to be good company for each other and for us. You mark the “world-weary” center of the adult narration, and I was filled with melancholy as I read. Yet on reflection, I was surprised to discover these early sentences in two books. Here is Petterson’s 67 year old Trond on page 5: “Even when everything was going well, as it often did. I can say that much. That it often did. I have been lucky.” And here is Ishiguro’s Kathy close to the end of her life on page 6: “That was when I first understood just how lucky we’d been–Tommy, Ruth, me, all the rest of us.” Wow. Are we meant to feel optimistic? Pretty sneaky if that is the case.

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    • Thanks for the thoughtful insight. I think the mark of truly great books is that they allow for multiple interpretations by different readers. A true reflection of the complicated world.

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  4. True, “multiple interpretations” are always with us in literature, but individuals can settle on a clear way of viewing a book and usually do. Discussion and further readings can, and often do, change views. Isn’t it important to try hard for a clear individual view and state that to others rather than just “allow” different interpretations?

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