Coming-of-age novels: if you haven’t read the classics by the time you hit uni, you’re still living through yours. Heading off to university is one of the first big steps of adulthood and if you want to arrive as a fully grown Holden Caulfield rather than a growing pain-tormented Adrian Mole then you’d best devour them before you arrive, not least so you can steal your entirely new persona from them and stand any chance at all of pulling that ‘interesting’ English Literature hottie by knowing your Clay from your Vernon God Little. If you don’t know these ten essential coming-of-age books ahead of your first semester, you haven’t started living.
Less Than Zero – Brett Easton Ellis
Written when Ellis was just 19-years-old, Less Than Zero is a shockingly brutal portrayal of a cruel and cold youth culture in LA in the 1980s. Returning to the city from college, privileged and dislocated student Clay becomes increasingly alienated by the heartlessness of the party scene, where heroin abuse is a spectator sport and violence an aphrodisiac. If your halls of residence are anything like this, get a transfer.
The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger
The archetypal teenager, Salinger’s legendary Holden Caulfield has become synonymous with the sort of angst-ridden identity crisis that is a crucial part of any troubled adolescence. As he wanders New York wracked with ennui, searching for direction and companionship and having the sort of disastrous encounters with women that would qualify him as an honorary Inbetweener, Caulfield encapsulates the aimlessness and uncertainty of young adulthood like no other character before or since.
Vernon God Little – D.C.B. Pierre
Existing on the outskirts of a horrific school shooting, DCB Pierre’s Booker Prize winner follows Vernon Little, the 15-year-old friend of a schoolboy who has massacred their classmates and killed himself, as he is gradually drawn into a web of manipulation and deceit designed to frame him for the killings. Forced to grow up quick, Vernon’s canny quick-thinking and counter-plotting make him a Caulfield with purpose.
Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson
In the midst of the gender revolution, Jeanette Winterson’s semi-autobiographical debut novel about a girl whose upbringing in an evangelist church starts to clash with the adolescent awakening of her lesbianism, is ever-more relevant to the modern student. Few novels have so accurately captured the adolescent’s eternal struggle between indoctrination and desire.
The Rotters Club – Jonathan Coe
Straddling the chasm between prog and punk was always likely to exacerbate the trials and confusions of youth, as envisioned here by Jonathan Coe in his classic tale of Birmingham schoolboys trying to make sense of life, art and culture in 1970s Birmingham. You may well come of age yourself while reading its final sentence– at over 13,000 words, arguably the longest ever written in English.
Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
The Classics shelves bow under the weight of coming of age masterpieces you really should have read by now – Little Women, The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, Jayne Eyre, Anne Of Green Gables – but Dickens’ engrossing tale of young Pip, him mysterious benefactor and the cold-hearted Estella who steals his heart, is amongst the greatest. You’d only relate to much of it if you were unfortunate enough to have been born a pauper in 1815, but it’s a rip-roaring yarn.
The Outsiders – S.E. Hinton
Ponyboy, Sodapop, Darry and Two-Bit – if the characters sound like they’ve just swaggered out of a Morrissey song it’s only testament to the retro cult-lit standing of The Outsiders. The teenage Hinton crafted a teenage class-struggle pitting two high school gangs The Socs and The Greasers against each other in 1960s Oklahoma – The Greasers cast as the wrong-side-of-the-tracks kids driven to crime and gang violence. A literary NWA album, basically.
Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro
Because clones come of age too, y’know. In a secluded boarding school in the English countryside three childhood friends become embroiled in a love triangle, unaware that they have been cloned in order to provide organs. A dystopian sci-fi twist on the coming-of-age tale – in that there might not be much ‘age’ for these children to come of – Ishiguro’s sensitive and moving 2005 novel is a modern masterpiece of the form.
The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
Set against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban, Hosseini’s debut novel and book club sensation is a dark and devastating portrayal of two boys from across the social divide whose idyllic youthful friendship is disrupted by both personal and political violence. One of the more hard-hitting works of the coming-of-age genre.
The Perks Of Being A Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky
Written as a series of letters to an anonymous recipient, Chbosky’s first book follows introverted 15-year-old Charlie as he embarks on his high school life under the wing of two seniors and the shadow of a family secret. A wistful story with a dark heart, …Wallflower tackled teenage drug experimentation, sexuality and unrequited love with a delicate touch.