The following post was written by Desiree Villena.
Coming-of-age fiction is, without a doubt, one of the most powerful literary genres. Its intimate depictions of growth, exploration, and loss of innocence reignite the emotions that we felt in our own youths — and, for those who are still young, reflect some of the most potent things they’re presently experiencing.
In other words, coming-of-age fiction can be wonderfully moving for readers of all ages, and authors have produced many brilliant works in the genre over time. Today, however, we’re going to focus on the contemporary! For your entertainment and/or emotionally wrenching nostalgia, here are the five best coming-of-age novels of 2019.
1. Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
Let’s kick things off with a potentially controversial selection: though Trust Exercise may have nabbed the National Book Award last year, its Goodreads rating currently hovers around an ambivalent 3.2. I’m convinced this is because most readers were not adequately prepared for what it contains — try as they might, reviews simply cannot convey the impact of the book’s unprecedented narrative structure, especially when combined with Choi’s sometimes disarming stylistic choices.
In any case, Trust Exercise is no typical coming-of-age novel. I’d categorize it as one-third bildungsroman, one-third experimental fiction, and one-third sharp social commentary. It does open with a romance between two teenagers, which quickly gives way to their breakup and the inappropriate intervention of a teacher; but from there, all bets are off. To say more would be to spoil it (major sympathy for whoever had to write the book description). Just know that, if you’re a coming-of-age aficionado seeking a brand-new take on the genre, this is the book for you.
2. With The Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo
Moving from unorthodox structure to unparalleled prose, With The Fire on High is a gorgeous, uplifting coming-of-age novel told in a poet’s voice — literally. Acevedo began her writing career in the world of poetry slams and open mics, and her prose is a testament to many years of practice, with creative recipes peppered (no pun intended) between chapters for added flair.
The story itself is not to be missed, either: it centers on high school senior Emoni Santiago, an aspiring chef and teenage mother struggling to balance her personal goals with her myriad obligations. When she enrolls in a culinary arts class, Emoni gets a much-deserved outlet and audience for her cooking, and is able to prioritize her passion for the first time in years. But will she be able to afford a life-changing class trip to Spain… and does she have space in her heart for a dazzling new classmate?
As you can probably tell, I found this warm-hearted YA novel a much lighter read than Trust Exercise, but it’s just as steeped in atmospheric and emotional depth. For those who like their coming-of-age fare rich and sweet, yet still easily digestible, pick up With the Fire on High.
3. Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane
In the domestically dramatic vein of Little Fires Everywhere (right down to the near-identical covers), Ask Again, Yes follows two families in turmoil that form an unbreakable bond.
The Stanhopes and the Gleesons first come into contact in 1973, when their patriarchs are cops in the NYPD. They soon become next door-neighbors as well, and a rapport develops between their children, Peter Stanhope and Kate Gleeson — our characters who are coming of age. But the kids aren’t the only ones battling angst and self-doubt; in fact, their parents’ marriages are veritable powder kegs, soon to be set alight by a shocking act of violence. Kate and Peter are ripped apart… only to reconnect years later, neither one of them healed from past trauma.
With a delicate balance of action and psychological nuance, Ask Again, Yes offers another atypical coming-of-age tale. You might say it makes the argument that we never really stop coming of age, and its “unpretentiously profound” (to quote Keane’s author website) execution of this notion is nothing short of visionary.
4. The Topeka School by Ben Lerner
This Pulitzer finalist is another poet-penned piece, though Lerner’s work exudes the quiet confidence of someone who’s also written quite a bit of prose. Its semi-autobiographical protagonist is debate champion Adam, who inherited his drive from his parents (whose own stories unspool alongside his in a number of illuminating ways).
In terms of the main coming-of-age plotline, however, The Topeka School is faintly reminiscent of A Separate Peace: Adam has a complex relationship with another boy at his school, Darren, who’s being treated by Adam’s father for a developmental disorder. Though they’re not quite friends, Adam brings Darren into the social fray of high school, and ultimately feels responsible for Darren’s behavior… which becomes a major source of guilt after an incident at a party.
Not unlike Trust Exercise, this plotline is only one piece of the puzzle, which encompasses countless other subplots and grand themes — if not always in a concrete or clear manner. (One reviewer aptly referred to The Topeka School as a sort of literary Thematic Apperception Test.) If you’re looking for a coming-of-age novel that’s denser and more challenging than anything else here, The Topeka School should be at the top of your list.
5. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
We’ll end on another light one, and perhaps my favorite iteration of the early-twenties coming-of-age tale since Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter. Emira Tucker is a young, financially insecure nanny for a wealthy family in Philadelphia. Her employer, Alix Chamberlain, is a white influencer who’s totally oblivious to Emira’s identity and experience as a Black woman — until one night when Emira is racially profiled and accused of kidnapping Alix’s daughter.
Though Emira escapes unscathed, hoping to forget the whole thing, Alix vows to be a more conscious and active presence in her life. Tensions emerge, motivations are revealed, and an unexpected personal connection makes both women question their relationships to one another. It’s a highly nuanced critique of class differences, working dynamics, and white saviorism… but written in such a breezy way that you might not even notice until you reach the final page.
Reid, and all the authors listed here, certainly have a talent for getting readers to focus, listen, and care. But this is also the nature of the coming-of-age genre as a whole! No matter how old you are or what you’ve been through, the raw emotional truth of such a book can still move you as if it were your own — and this is, in my opinion, the very best experience of reading.
Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors with the world’s best self-publishing resources. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction (especially coming-of-age novels!) and writing short stories.