What to Read When You’re Having a Quarter Life Crisis

If you’re in your 20s or 30s and experiencing existential dread, these 10 books might be for you

Photo by Martin Reisch on Unsplash

The first time I heard the term “quarter-life crisis,” I questioned its validity. I had heard of the mid-life crisis, seen it played out ridiculously, sometimes salaciously, on TV or in novels. It was usually people in their 40s and 50s reassessing the direction of their lives—empty nesters scrambling after their children have left, parents questioning their child-rearing methods, people buying motorcycles, having affairs, or turning to religion. I understood why people approaching their 40s felt the need to question their place. They’ve experienced so much more of life than someone in their mid-20s. Their questions and concerns seemed rooted in a truth one could only gain access to with age. 

But quarter-life crisis? I didn’t quite understand the idea of it. Then I graduated college. The communities that I had surrounded myself with, the friends who could coax from me the most honest representation of myself were not as easily accessible. The pressure was on to find not only a fulfilling, stable career but also create a consistent, meaningful life. If you’re in your 20s and experiencing of bouts of existential dread, these 10 books might be for you. 

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Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

After the death of her mother, Cheryl Strayed’s life fell apart—she filed for divorce and began using drugs. Strayed continued on this downward spiral for four years until she came across a book about the Pacific Crest Trail. Unprepared but determined, she set off to hike the PCT where, bruised and bloodied by the rough terrain, she would rediscover a sense of wonder and awe. 

The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls by Emma Cline

Caught in the middle of her neglectful parents’ messy divorce and their dysfunctional new relationships,  fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd craves attention, community, and a way to cope with her growing interest in girls. Enter the answer to Evie’s prayers, Suzanne. Suzanne is five years older, pretty, confident, and a member of a Charles Manson-esque cult. As her attraction to her new friend grows so does the devotion she feels to this dangerous community. Told by a now much older Evie, this debut novel asks whether the bland life she would ultimately lead was the right choice. 

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Pretend I’m Dead by Jen Beagin

Mona is 24-years-old and cleans houses for a living. Desperately searching for emotional connection in a community of rich homeowners, she falls in love with a heroin addict she nicknames Mr. Disgusting. When the very unlikely romance ends badly, Mona moves to New Mexico to start afresh. She cleans houses for an eccentric cast of characters including a New Age couple, a man with a mysterious secret, and a psychic who might actually be psychic. With each new encounter, Mona learns unexpected lessons that allow here to confront the past traumas that have barred her from the belonging she craves. 

Florence in Ecstasy by Jessie Chaffee 

Anorexic and bulimic since the age of 28, Hannah loses her job at a Boston art museum after passing out one too many times at work. Adrift and unmoored, she moves to Florence, Italy hoping to find refuge. Engrossed in the country’s history, culture, and the tentative friendships she amasses, Hannah’s arguably impulsive decision works until she becomes obsessed with her research about female saints who find transcendence and ecstasy in self-denial and self-harm.

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The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood 

In Margaret Atwood’s first novel, Marian McAlpin is newly engaged to the serious Peter. Surrounded by varying versions of happiness—one friend who is perpetually pregnant but seemingly miserable and another friend dreams of bearing a fatherless child—she confronts the cracks in her relationship. As her wedding day approaches, her doubts graduate to a loss of appetite. Cutting out meat, eggs, cheese, even carrots from her daily diet, Marian is soon surviving on salads and the growing concern that marrying Peter might be a mistake.  

The Pisces by Melissa Broder

The Pisces by Melissa Broder

Lucy has been writing her dissertation for over a decade. Already disillusioned by her lack of academic success, Lucy falls into an even deeper depression when her ex-boyfriend starts dating another woman. Hoping to mend her broken, affection-hungry heart, she moves into her half-sister’s Venice Beach home. After a slew of failed group therapy sessions and lackluster Tinder hookups, she meets the perfect man—one who showers her with attention, satisfies her sexually, but has a fish tail. Well, every relationship has its issues, right? 

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Narrated by the now thirty-something-year-old Ifemelu, Americanah flashbacks to its protagonist at the age of fifteen. Ifemelu has just accepted a scholarship to attend college in America, leaving behind her native Nigeria and high school sweetheart Obinze. The novel recounts not only a long distance love but also self-discovery as Ifemelu, “conditioned from birth to look somewhere else,” struggles with her identity as a displaced African immigrant. 

The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon

The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon

When Phoebe, a child piano prodigy, and Will, a once-religious “evangelical kid,” meet at Edwards University, the latter falls head over heels for the former. After her mother’s death, Phoebe—guilt-ridden and seeking comfort—joins Jejah, a cult founded by Edwards University dropout John Leal. After members of Jejah perpetrate a deadly act of violence, Phoebe disappears leaving a concerned Will to untangle John’s web of deceit. At the root of Kwon’s debut novel is a story of three young people desperately searching for something to believe in.

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Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori

Keiko Furukura has worked at the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart for 18 years—outlasting managers, co-workers, and customers. Keiko is happy with her life and finds purpose in her routine as a convenience store employee. However, the same cannot be said of her friends and family who desire a more “normal” life for her (normal as in a husband and 1.5 children). Convenience Store Woman is a darkly humorous novella about the patriarchal expectations placed on women.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh 

Ottessa Moshfegh’s unnamed narrator is perpetually apathetic, newly unemployed, and so done with life. Orphaned at 24 after the death of her parents—a cancer-ridden father and an alcohol-addicted mother—the already opiate-obsessed narrator decides to enter a year-long, pill-induced coma. Accompanied by a young art student who agrees to document her experiment, the narrator puts herself to sleep hoping to emerge transformed.  

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