The Right Novels to Read in Every Life Crisis
Books for each stage of life
Not one for self-help books, I like to look to novels to get me through certain difficult periods in my life. Change can be lonely, so it’s best not to endure it alone. And who better to share it with than characters in a book, going through the same changes? Reading the stories of those going through similar experiences—even if they come from completely different backgrounds or live in an entirely different part of the world—always allows me to see my own situation from a new perspective. If you’ve diagnosed yourself with one of the following particularly life-altering moments, I have just the prescription to get you through it.
Coming of age: Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki
Mariko and Jillian Tamaki portray with delicacy and vibrancy the chaotic world of adolescence in this beautifully illustrated graphic novel. Kimberly (Skim) Keiko Cameron battles with dark thoughts, infatuation and sexuality while attending a girls’ private school.
College: The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Donna Tartt’s first novel takes place in an elite Vermont college and brings the setting to life through each arduous New England season. The narrator, Richard Papen, recounts his undergraduate years as he finds his way into the ultra-exclusive Plato-revering clique comprised of wealthy mysteriousstudents. After Richard secures his place at the Classics table, he realizes that inclusion wasn’t what he expected, or what he wanted.
Living abroad: The Idiot by Elif Batuman
Selin, a Turkish American student at Harvard, studies semiotics and becomes fixated on the way languages can shape the way we see each other and the world. In her first year, Selin befriends Sventlana, a head-strong Serbian, and falls in love with her Russian language classmate, Ivan, with whom she speaks exclusively through email. Following a suggestion by her e-penpal, Selin spends the summer in Hungary teaching English, where her studies and theories about contrasting linguistic lifestyles manifest in her new life abroad.
First job: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
Stephanie Danler shows her readers the intoxicating, exhilarating, and punishing world of a young waitress in New York City. Tess lands a job in a highly respected restaurant, based on the famous Union Square Cafe. She navigates the labyrinthine of fine dining during her shifts and immerses herself in the whirlwind lifestyle of booze and drugs when she’s off the clock. Tess’s story typifies the hurdle of getting and keeping a first job.
Marriage: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
The titular marriage in Jones’ novel weathers an unimaginable storm when Roy and Celestial become separated by bars. During a visit home to Louisiana, Roy is accused of rape and sentenced to prison. Celestial reckons everyday with the decision whether to stay loyal to her husband while taking her life into her own hands as an artist and entrepreneur. An American Marriage deftly questions gender roles within modern marriages and racial injustices in our current political era.
Divorce: A Separation by Katie Kitamura
After a secret separation from her husband, the narrator is forced to confront the turmoil and deceits of their marriage when he goes missing in the Greek islands. During her search for him, the narrator uncovers things about her husband that she never knew. Her dark interior monologues contrast with her compliant disposition, demonstrating the gulf between what we think we know about someone and who they actually are.
Pregnancy: The Farm by Joanne Ramos
Set in a GOOP-esque farm in Massachusetts where immigrant women carry fetuses for the wealthy, The Farm tackles messy truths about surrogacy, capitalism, the wealth gap, and racial disparities. The elite surrogacy business at the heart of the novel, Golden Oaks, offers poor women of color money in return for renting their wombs to carry the babies of wealthy white families.
Parenting: The Need by Helen Phillips
Raising a child can be terrifying. For the protagonist of The Need—a thrilling page-turner loaded with philosophical questions about identity and empathy—motherhood is a nightmare. Helen Phillips reveals how the unequivocal devotion a mother feels can lead to hopelessness and inner terror when Molly confronts danger in her own home while taking care of her young children.
Aging: The Dictionary of Animal Languages by Heidi Sopinka
Heidi Sopinka explores old age through the story of Ivory Frame, now nearly a century old, a woman who ran away to Paris in her teens and fell in love with surrealist art and a Russian artist. But her bohemian life was upended during WWII, and she now works in solitude on her final masterpiece: the dictionary of animal languages.
Facing mortality: The Caregiver by Samuel Park
In this posthumously published novel, Samuel Park writes about the complexities of dependent relationships and the sacrifice and hardship of caring for a person who can no longer take care of themself. Mara Alencer is the Brazilian caregiver of a white woman with terminal cancer in California. Before she moved from Rio de Janeiro, she lived with her mother, a voiceover actress who depended on her daughter as much as her daughter depended on her.