8 Books About Chucking It All and Assuming a New Identity
Live vicariously through characters who left their lives behind—or at least tried to
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Listen, adult responsibilities are hard. Between work, debt, dating, and all that other Life Stuff, nobody would blame you for fantasizing about walking away and reinventing yourself with a new identity in another state, maybe another country. But vanishing can be harder than you think—and starting over doesn’t always mean your problems don’t follow you. Instead, live vicariously through these fictional characters who—voluntarily or not—left it all behind.
Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler
Delia, a 40-year-old mother of three, impulsively abandons her family during a beach vacation, with little besides the swimsuit on her back. Reinventing herself in a new small town, Delia gradually figures out who she is without the context of her family.
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
This French classic is a legitimately sprawling novel, but the central one of its many threads concerns the ex-convict Jean Valjean, who recreates himself multiple times—including as a mayor, a convent groundskeeper, a devoted but reclusive father, and a reluctant revolutionary—in an attempt to shed his history of (wrongful) imprisonment and escape.
The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier
It might be fun to meet your doppelganger—until he steals your identity and your life, forcing you to pretend to be him in turn. In Du Maurier’s thriller, English academic John is thrust into an intrigue-laden life as a French count.
Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood
In Atwood’s second novel, Joan Foster leads a double-double-double life: as a writer of “trashy” romance and a feminist poet, as an unfulfilled wife having a ridiculous affair, as a former fat girl who doesn’t know how to live in the new body she’s built herself. When the weight of these duplicities threatens to crush her, she fakes her own death to escape.
Man Walks Into a Room by Nicole Krauss
Samson Greene doesn’t exactly leave his life—his life leaves him. The Ivy League professor disappears from New York and turns up wandering in the Nevada desert with no memory of how he got there, or even who he is. His fugue turns out to be the result of a brain tumor, but even after surgery Greene only remembers his life up until age 12. This one’s less about creating a new identity, and more about what identity even is.
The Outsider by Richard Wright
In Wright’s confrontational, existential novel, unhappy outsider Cross Damon finds himself fortuitously reported dead, and sets out to create a new personality—in the process rejecting most of the things that people build identities on, including conventional morality (he murders several people over the course of the book).
The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
By the middle of Vonnegut’s beloved but frankly still underrated novel, everyone hates Malachi Constant. He’s so universally reviled that an entire religion has been built around mocking him. So what would happen if you found out you were Malachi Constant, except you didn’t remember anything about your life? That’s only one of the perfect twists in this book, which among many other things is an investigation of what you can—and can’t—leave behind.
Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta
After a Vietnam War protest gets out of hand, Bobby and Mary have to abandon their radical values, their pasts, and each other. The novel follows their separate paths 20 years forward, into the ’90s, where the two have new names and new lives but still retain scars from what they left behind.