Seeking the best stories, across all genres, about coming to terms with the world in the early adult years.
October 30, 2012 9:09 AM   Subscribe

What are the best stories that feature young adults coming of age/coming to terms with life's imperfect realities? By "young adults" I mean "adults who are young," probably roughly 19-30, not "young people who are becoming adults." This maturing process can be central to the work or peripheral. One example: "The Great Gatsby." Short stories, novels, nonfiction, film, television and any other genre are all welcome.
posted by croutonsupafreak to Media & Arts (29 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
To answer my own question, I think Lena Dunham's "Girls" might be another good example of what I'm looking for. But I need more. Lots more.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 9:11 AM on October 30, 2012

Avenue Q has this as a major theme.
posted by kalimac at 9:28 AM on October 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

The Swimming Pool Library, an incredibly powerful story about a young man who does his best to duck out on his family history, class position and racial background and who is genuinely convinced that he's putting one over on the world, he is much smarter than the people who went before him, etc etc. And of course he isn't. I found it pretty wrenching. (Caution - lots of sex! Like, it's a novel about the world as it is expressed in sexual relationships.)

Although it does not fall within your age range, I also suggest Doris Lessing's not-well-enough-known Diaries of Jane Somers, about a woman late in a very successful career who has the kind of self-re-evaluation that has been delayed for her and would normally have happened when she was young. It's an unusual book in that it does not have a romance at the core. (It really resonated with me in my late twenties when I was going through some stuff, so I recommend it here.)

Also, if you like fantasy novels you might enjoy Peter Beagle's The Folk of the Air, about a guy who goes back to Berkeley (the town, although in the book it's called Arcata) in the late seventies, having graduated right at the end of hippiedom. He meets up with a bunch of old friends, and stuff happens. It is also a fictional document of the start of the Society for Creative Anachronism and incidentally one of the finest fantasy novels out there - should be right up there with Hope Mirlees as a timeless classic.
posted by Frowner at 9:34 AM on October 30, 2012

Dave Eggers - You Shall Know Our Velocity

Some of the essays in David Sedaris - When You Are Engulfed In Flames
posted by Pre-Taped Call In Show at 9:34 AM on October 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

I am a huge fan of Rebecca Goldstein's The Mind-Body Problem. Also, most early work by Margaret Drabble, such as Jerusalem the Golden and A Summer Bird Cage.

Any novel that can be called a Bildungsroman is going to have some level of this though. They vary a lot in terms of how much uplift there is at the end, how seriously the problems are treated, etc. I love the Goldstein book because it respects the fact that it's part of that history (frequent references to Middlemarch) without getting too meta or precious. Oh and it does suggest a solution to the mind-body problem-- sort of.
posted by BibiRose at 9:37 AM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Richard Price's The Breaks has stayed with me for a long time.
posted by Egg Shen at 9:45 AM on October 30, 2012

Some books: Rona Jaffe's The Best of Everything, Mary McCarthy's The Group, Joanna Smith Rakoff's A Fortunate Age. All 3 of those revolve around similar themes: college graduates in their early 20s figuring out life in NYC.
posted by 1901gunner at 9:47 AM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Out of Africa". When her lover dies, she marries his brother as a means for them to get around societal expectations and take some control over their lives. He is never faithful and gives her an STD and she ends up sterile. War comes. Etc. Lots of things turn out to be beyond their control and very hard decisions have to be made. They handle a lot of it with remarable dignity.
posted by Michele in California at 9:54 AM on October 30, 2012

Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:54 AM on October 30, 2012

W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage follows the main character from age 9 to age 30 so there is some of the "young person becoming an adult" but the most powerful section, I think, is when he's older and learning to temper his youthful idealism.
posted by EmilyFlew at 9:54 AM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

A Soldier of the Great War, by Mark Helprin.
posted by Spinneret at 9:59 AM on October 30, 2012

Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces is 30 but definitely going through this -- he has to get a job! Oh dear.
posted by jabes at 10:13 AM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, by Douglas Coupland
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:22 AM on October 30, 2012

Like Frowner, I suggest Doris Lessing. Her Children of Violence series, particularly the first four books (Martha Quest, A Proper Marriage, A Ripple From the Storm and Landlocked), are about a young woman's internal and external attempts to come to terms with her social environment of colonial white society in Rhodesia. She conforms outwardly for a time, but never internally, and finally has to reject both mainstream society and, eventually, the country.
posted by Ladysin at 10:25 AM on October 30, 2012

Withnail and I. Oh God, yes.
posted by Decani at 10:38 AM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might try dipping into Joan Didion's short non-fiction collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I read it years ago and there's a pertinent line in Goodbye To All That which has really stuck with me:

"That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it."
posted by comealongpole at 10:38 AM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're in the mood to be depressed, Less Than Zero is a good place to start.

On the other side of that is Girl, Interrupted.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:08 AM on October 30, 2012

I really liked "The Fuck-Up" by Arthur Nersesian. It's about a young man coming to terms with his best friend's death as his life slides further and further into fucked-up-ness. It has a happy ending though!

Once, as a teenager, I had believed that people could change themselves. Finally I realized that all one could ever hope for was understanding one's filty self better.
posted by permiechickie at 11:40 AM on October 30, 2012

An extreme example of this: Into the Wild.
posted by Johnny Assay at 12:39 PM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I keep recommending this book, but Franny and Zooey - particularly Zooey - fits your description.

The Savage Detectives, by Roberto BolaƱo, particularly the second part, can be read as a pessimistic take on this theme.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:42 PM on October 30, 2012

You Shall Know Our Velocity! was already mentioned, but Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius would also work here.
posted by troublewithwolves at 2:25 PM on October 30, 2012

Movie: SLC Punk.
posted by ActionPopulated at 3:12 PM on October 30, 2012

Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver.
posted by geek anachronism at 3:26 PM on October 30, 2012

I know you said no teenagers becoming adults. I know! But I just saw Margaret, which has the complexities of making adult decisions--especially as they relate to one's responsibility to the truth, what is ethical, and how making those decisions can affect other people--as its main themes. Sorry, I just have to recommend it. FWIW, Margaret (I think she's 17 in the film) carries herself and speaks like a young adult, totally.
posted by Rykey at 5:45 PM on October 30, 2012

Very recent book, "The Magician King" by Lev Grossman. Fantasy but otherwise hard to categorize - 'urban' with crossovers into what's obviously supposed to be Narnia. Prose is comic but themes are serious. It's about actual adults coming to terms with, like, personal responsibility, and the gap between your expectations for yourself and reality. I enjoyed it very much, much more than most other books I've read this year. It's unfortunately the sequel to a book that's not about adults (but still very good and I highly recommend it). Also it has a really bad title but don't let that dissuade you.
posted by srs airbag at 6:03 PM on October 30, 2012

One I remember is The Harrad Experiment. Very risque at the time.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 7:31 PM on October 30, 2012

My Brilliant Career.
posted by gudrun at 3:35 AM on October 31, 2012


The Darjeeling Limited
Ghost World

Some TV, or at least parts of it:

Mad Men, Peter and Peggy. "20-somethings coming of age and coming to terms with life's imperfect realities" pretty much summarizes both of these main characters (and a number of supporting characters as well).

The Venture Brothers begins when the boys are adolescents, but they've aged as the series went on and as of season 5 have now reached young adulthood. "Coming to terms with life's imperfect realities" is a strong theme of the show, especially in later seasons as it gets more character-driven and thoughtful.
posted by Ndwright at 9:41 AM on October 31, 2012

Came back to add another movie - Look At Me. The character of the daughter fits this arc: "young adult coming of age and coming to terms with life's imperfect realities".
posted by gudrun at 10:00 AM on October 31, 2012

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