“Nature made me happy and good, and if I am otherwise, it is society’s fault.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his eighteenth century coming of age novel Emile, accurately spotlighted the bildungsroman’s essential battle between nature and nurture. Are we destined to become who we are as adults, or are we formed by our experiences on the way? It happens to all of us, but the process of growing up continues to fascinate writers, artists, and filmmakers, for it surrounds the struggle to forge an identity in a chaotic and often harsh environment.
The transition from childhood to adulthood is a complex and often painful journey, and as readers, we are granted the unusual privilege of following our protagonist along this road. Time spent with the characters is what makes a bildungsroman so compelling; no other kind of novel gives us such an intense connection.
Paradoxically, the bildungsroman is a genreless genre. The concept transcends typical boundaries of science fiction, crime, or romance. Moonlight, The Name of the Wind, The Kite Runner, and Glee all fall under the bracket of coming-of-age stories, so don’t be fooled by the pretentious title. Here are a few of our favourites, transporting you to the gritty slums of Naples, the streets of Istanbul, and even up to rural Scotland.
A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk
Devanshika, Deputy Books Editor
At a Brooklyn author event for this novel, Pamuk declared that “a book is not its plot”. Sure, he was directly referencing students at his Columbia University lectures accusing him of handing out spoilers to classic literature, but the idea applies perfectly well to A Strangeness in My Mind as well. The plot exists, but it’s definitely not as important as most other elements in the story, with a timeline that loops about jarringly often, beginning in medias reas and leaping back in forth in a way that only helps convey its theme of inherent disorientation. A street vendor of a yogurt drink, the protagonist Mevlut grapples with the perplexities of human existence (do we ever truly make our own choices, he seems to ask, when near-Shakespearean trickery has him marrying the wrong woman) to the mundane eccentricities of his family, friends and quixotic anecdotes from his neighbourhood. They say Sex and the City’s fourth protagonist was the city of New York, but Istanbul in this story could give that idea a run for its money. This is a coming of age of Melvut, yes, but more of Istanbul as a city, charting its changing landscapes (political or otherwise) over forty pivotal twentieth century years.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Amelia, Deputy Editor
Written originally in Italian, the first of the enigmatic Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels remains one of my favourite coming-of-age books. The story follows the intense friendship and rivalry between two working-class girls, Elena and Lila, growing up in the slums of post-World War Two Naples. We are introduced firstly to Elena as an old woman, who tells us that Lila has disappeared, and from there we are transported back to a gritty and violent urban childhood. The series as a whole deftly follows the girls for over sixty years.
Ferrante beautifully interweaves gender and class in Lila and Elena’s many hardships. They are flawed and often cruel characters, but the power of the genre is that it facilitates a deeper understanding into the reasons behind a character’s anger or meanness. The girls are first and foremost determined survivors of a political and social system that constantly works against them, and across the four books in the series, the enduring message is of strength and bravery.
A brutal and dangerous Naples is brought to life by Ferrante’s stark prose. My Brilliant Friend has a huge cast of characters, which although confusing at first, makes for a lively ensemble and draws the reader in to the complex social network of the slums. We follow Lila and Elena as they encounter love, sex, conflict, and abuse. Ferrante steers clear of tropes, and so there is no guaranteed dream career or happy marriage; the narrative constantly teeters on the brink of disaster and both girls are forced to make unhappy choices in order to secure themselves financially.
Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon
Eve, Books Editor
A coming-of-age tale set in pre-WWI rural Scotland, Sunset Song tells the story of a young girl who finds herself torn between her rural upbringing and her love of books and education, “two Chrisses there were that fought for her heart and tormented her.” Written in a very accessible form of Scots, with a glossary at the back to keep you on track, Grassic Gibbon beautifully explores Chris’ increasing awareness of her sexuality as a young woman; in a family, community and religion that shroud the female form in shame. Chris must navigate the complexities of young love, the death of her mother and the disturbing advances of her lustful father. The ever-present backdrop to Chris’ upbringing is her local community of Kinraddie: both a stifling source of hypocrisy and a support system that Chris comes to depend upon.
Voted ‘The Best Scottish Book of All Time’, the novel depicts the sun setting on the traditional, Scottish way of life in the face of the tumultuous political events of the 20th Century. Grassic Gibbon’s novel is a powerful tribute to the “Peasants, the last of the Old Scots folk” who died in trenches far from the land they were so devoted to, for a cause they did not understand, “with them we may say there died a thing older than themselves.”
The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
Devanshika, Deputy Books Editor
I’ve been told that the only people who genuinely enjoy this book are rebellious, angsty teenagers who relate to Holden Caulfield, and I wonder whether I’ve got a whiny misanthrope lingering inside of me because of my absolute love for him. It’s not a long book at all, but it’s full of cutting observations and little asides that make you feel, as Holden himself says about good books, like “you wish the author was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up whenever you felt like it”. Just two days in Holden’s life let Salinger– who has admitted that the novel is semi-autobiographical– explore the fundamental theme of a transition to adulthood, a transition that Holden struggles with deeply and unconsciously throughout. His arc isn’t anything like that of a classic bildungsroman protagonist, spending the entire novel in a state of disillusionment and emotional upheaval, with choice moments of epiphany (through his relationship with his sister) but definitely nowhere close to stability or maturity. The Atlantic has written an entire article telling reviewers to stop calling all new coming of age novels “the next Catcher in the Rye”, which is fair enough—it goes against the essence of Holden’s consistent disdain for ‘phony’ popularity and establishmentarianism, but The Catcher in the Rye is an essential read in the genre.