7 Books About Friendships in Your 20s

Katherine Lin, author of "You Can't Stay Here Forever," recommends stories that capture the messy and thrilling bonds of early adulthood

A group of three women watch the sunset with their hands in the air.
Photo by Simon Maage via Unsplash

I am 33-years-old, just young enough that I feel like I can still reach out and touch my 20s. The early years of adulthood were full of discovery, joy, and energy (you really can drink an entire bottle of wine at dinner and then go to work the next day with nothing more than some water and an Advil!) But I also remember the startling pain of growth, the unease of trying to navigate the years as the realization sets in that life might not be at all what you expected or hoped. 

Friends are a formative part of being in your 20s, together experiencing the same advent calendar of thrilling and unsettling realities. As the prospect of turning 30 darkens your doorstep, you realize that traits that might’ve been tolerable or easy to ignore in yourself and in them are starting to calcify—you begin to see the outlines of your lives in the decades to come. I have friends who realized they were alcoholics, who got married only to find themselves ill-suited for their spouse, or who began to accept that their dream job might not love them back. 

In You Can’t Stay Here Forever, I was interested in plumbing the depths of friendship in your 20s—how it evolves (or doesn’t) as people find their footing in the precarious time of becoming an adult. The best friends in my book, Ellie and Mable, have been close since college and now find themselves trying to figure out how to be adults, all while comparing themselves to each other. Like many longtime friends, Ellie and Mable have fragile, thorny relationship with each other—there are equal amounts of love and loyalty as there are competition and jealousy. They’re also the greatest influences in each other’s lives, for better or worse. 

While writing, my North Stars were books that recognized the power, significance, and influence of friendships in your 20s. The below books have friendships that, even if begun in childhood, remained significant in the early years of adulthood. The books remind me of my own friendships in my 20s, the ways we did right by each other, and the ways we let each other down. They remind me of racing to happy hour, finding your friend already waiting for you at the bar, and then spending the rest of the night talking about the person you hope to be. They remind me of growing up.     

Post-Traumatic by Chantal V. Johnson

In this wickedly funny, electric debut, the protagonist Vivian and her best friend Jane meet in law school after Jane witnesses Vivian calling out an offensive, leering man at a party. Johnson writes deftly about the magical feeling of when you meet someone and know, in the white-hot center of your soul, that they’re going to be your friend: “Jane’s words felt like a benediction, offering an excuse, a reason, and a plan all in one, some kind of loophole against embarrassment, shame, and self-recrimination, after which [Vivian would] be forever changed.” Jane eventually drops out of law school but Vivian and Jane maintain their closeness as Vivian attempts to survive as a Black Latinx woman who is dealing with a staggeringly difficult job as a lawyer for mentally ill patients in a New York City psychiatric hospital, and an impossible family life that wants to swallow her whole. Post-Traumatic is singular, incisive, and unlike anything you’ve read before.

Fiona and Jane by Jean Chen Ho

Ho’s book is a glittering collection of stories that follow two best friends, Fiona and Jane, from when they first meet as children after Fiona immigrates to America from Taiwan with her mother, through early adulthood when Jane is living in LA and Fiona is in Manhattan. Alternating in perspective, the stories navigate the women’s complicated relationships with their parents, their partners, each other, and themselves. As they drift in and out of each other’s lives they serve as each other’s touchstones as time reveals itself in the terrifying, marvelous way that it does during early adulthood. Most of all, there is the fierce, hard-won loyalty of two friends who see each other for who they really are.

Truth & Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett

Truth and Beauty is a memoir, and like all things written by Patchett, it is exceptional. Patchett writes about one of the most defining relationships of her life: her friendship with Lucy Grealy, whom she becomes close to after enrolling in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Grealy, who wrote Autobiography of a Face, is a poet and essayist whose childhood cancer led to the partial removal of her jawbone. My favorite parts of this story are when Patchett and Grealy are in their twenties, trying to figure out who they are, who they want to be. It’s been two years since I read this book and I think about it all the time. 

Stay True: A Memoir by Hua Hsu

Stay True, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction, is heart-wrenching, brilliant, unforgettable. Hua Hsu writes about his unlikely friendship with Ken, whom he met as an undergraduate student at Berkeley. Hsu values obscurity, measures himself in defiance to popular culture and the mainstream. Ken is in a fraternity and once made Hsu wait with him at a mall for an Abercrombie and Fitch store to open so he could snag a jacket that was sold out everywhere else. Although Ken dies unbearably young, at twenty, Ken leaves an indelible mark on Hsu’s life—the kind made only possible by those rare friendships that shape your outlook on the world.

Stay True is a beautiful portrayal of coming of age, of a time where you were both overconfident and insecure, exploding with cynicism and hope, moving through the world under the spell that, maybe, unlike the generations before, you and your friends will figure it all out. 

The Dead Are Gods by Eirinie Carson

In The Dead Are Gods, Carson writes about her friendship with her goddess-of-a-friend Larissa, who dies unexpectedly at 32. Best friends since childhood, they spend their explosive twenties by each other’s side, two strikingly beautiful models and roommates who were maybe, perhaps, behind on rent but could go out and stun any man in London into buying them dinner and drinks. Carson’s writing is spectacular and piercing, and The Dead Are Gods is a powerful meditation on agonizing, excruciating grief, an honest portrayal of the lives that are left behind when a friend suddenly dies. 

If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha

Frances Cha’s outstanding debut follows Kyuri, Miho, Ara, Wonna, and Sujin, five women living in the same apartment complex in Seoul. While each is struggling with individual dilemmas amidst crushing wealth inequality, the wreckages of their childhood—and most of all, the impossible beauty and femininity standards that are inextricably tangled with life as a modern Korean woman—their friendships with each other emerge as the greatest source of comfort and influence in their lives. If I Had Your Face asks urgent, aching questions about beauty: its price, its power, its suffering. It is also a testament to the power and importance of friendship in the early years of adulthood.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is about Sam and Sadie, who meet as children, become friends, fall out, and then find their way back to each other in college. They make a video game together, achieve life-changing success, and all the while their decades-long friendship is both treasured and tested. For both of them, the most influential relationship in their lives is their friendship with each other––such is the power of bonds reforged in the fire of early adulthood. As I read, I seesawed between sympathy for Sam or Sadie during the stormy seasons of their relationships, and rejoiced for them when they found equal footing. Most of all though, I was moved and inspired by Zevin’s portrayal of an authentic and transcendent friendship.

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