The years around high school and college can be great, but they can also be turbulent times where finding oneself can mean temporarily losing oneself, particularly with sex, drugs, or romance. The three new novels in this week’s book club are all (recent) period pieces set in the 1980s and early ‘90s, featuring youth trying to make tough decisions and stay afloat across the country. The stories are dramatic, but the emotions and choices will be relatable to new teens and young adults, as well as those of us who grew up in the eras getting the coming-of-age treatment.
1. The Future Won’t Be Long by Jarett Kobek ($27): The new book by Kobek (I Hate the Internet) takes us through the ups and downs of a longstanding, supportive-destructive friendship through the rough and tumble New York City of the 1980s and ‘90s. This coming of age takes place over a decade, but starts with a shocking, traumatic event: “I moved to New York not long after my mother killed my father, or was it my father who murdered my mother? Anyhoo, in a red haze of blood and broken bones, one did in the other. Several weeks were spent filling out paperwork and cleaning up the gore. After I finished with these burdens, I abandoned my siblings and boarded a Greyhound bus in the parking lot of a corner store on the outskirts of my Podunk little Wisconsin town. Thirty-six hours later, I was in the city.”
Baby Baby Baby (or just “Baby”) as he christens himself, survives both the horrific deaths of his parents and being gay in a 700-person town in Wisconsin to begin a new existence in a bigger world. His guide through this tumultuous and fascinating life is Adeline, a rich freshman at Parsons who unilaterally declares he’s moving into her dorm room when she sees his sketchy hovel in the East Village. Adeline herself has a dead father and lives across the country from her alcoholic mother in Los Angeles. Both exhibit that curious youthful mix of wanting to do everything and actually having no idea what they’re doing.
Kobek draws a detailed portrait of a vivid city that no longer exists, where Baby finds joy just in the ability to walk with purpose, rather than drive around aimlessly. New York is painted in all of its gritty glory, and there’s a fair share of name-dropping, as Baby and Adeline meet a whole bunch of boldface through their artistic goals and club-hopping, including Bret Easton Ellis, Norman Mailer, and the gay sci-fi writer Thomas M. Disch. It’s not just New York that gets the coming-of-age treatment; we also follow Adeline to San Francisco and the two of them to Adeline’s home city of LA, where Baby discovers yet another exciting scene. Can they become the artists and professionals they long to be and leave the seductive club life behind? Their friendship, born of chance, will evolve and inexorably shape the people they turn out to be.
2. Things that Happened Before the Earthquake by Chiara Barzini ($27): If you’re longing for another recent period piece and you can’t get enough of ‘90s LA, this new novel from Italian writer Barzini removes her teenage heroine from her native Italy and plunges her into the San Fernando Valley, only weeks after the riots of ’92 threatened to tear the area apart. Eugenia likes her life in Rome and isn’t ready for her filmmaker parents to inform her that their dreams of making it in Hollywood with a horror movie supersede her need for home. (To make things worse, they inform her of this while the entire family is acting in a commercial for Italian Spam.) To Eugenia, that’s the real horror.
“It felt like the city was still burning when we stepped off the airplane. Or maybe I was yet to get used to the incendiary quality of the warm Santa Ana, the ‘devil winds’ that blew in from the desert… Nothing felt welcoming, and my father knew it.” Eugenia’s new high school is huge and filled with gang members, and her formerly walkable world is now beholden to the car. Her friends Henry and Deva make things bearable, but, less fortunately, so do the drugs Henry provides, rave culture, and copious sex with truly questionable people, including the screenwriter of her parents’ movie.
Barzini satirizes the self-absorption of Hollywood and teenagers alike as Eugenia comes of age, presenting addictions that run rampant, bizarre therapy sessions, and Valley girls who are accessories to murder. These stand in stark contrast to the natural beauty of Topanga Canyon, one thing that might bring Eugenia peace. She not only examines the impact of the riots through an outsider’s eyes, but also shows us how Eugenia later deals with the differently destructive 1994 earthquake and faces an awakening that even her beloved Italy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Disillusionment, destruction, exploration: Sounds like coming of age.
3. This Must Be the Place by Susan Jackson Rodgers ($17): We’ve got coming of age in New York and in California; now here’s a book that connects the two and stops in the middle. Thea Knox, a new college grad (Class of ’83), is adrift after her plans to house sit for her parents over the summer fall through when her parents literally sell the house out from under her. Instead of deciding on her future in her childhood home, she goes for one of the most cherished coming-of-age traditions: the road trip.
Thea is given the task of driving her best friend (and sister of Thea’s occasional hookup Eddie) Emily’s car from California to New York, where Eddie is, as Emily takes a job overseas. During her journey, Thea gets an unexpected proposal of marriage from Eddie over the phone, and her shock and dismay cause her to detour to Kansas and her aunt Wendy. Thea’s decision to stay the summer in Merdale, Kansas leads her to fall for and move in with Jimmy, a college instructor, while growing extremely fond of her aunt’s eclectic and kind friends. While some people welcome her, others don’t, and there’s a secret that might change Thea’s happy but temporarily paused life with Jimmy.
It’s all an attempt to hide from growing up, but as we all find out, your responsibilities will catch up with you eventually, especially if you’ve got more than one boyfriend and friends who are looking for you. To paraphrase the Talking Heads: When you’re coming of age, home may be where you want to be, but you might already be there.
What books helped you through that awkward phase? Tag us in your next maturing read @BritandCo.
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