The best coming-of-age novels that feature loss

The Books I Picked & Why

Ordinary People

By Judith Guest

Book cover of Ordinary People

Why this book?

Judith Guest’s novel about a family who loses their eldest son in a boating accident on Lake Michigan was summer reading for my entire class in high school, but it felt like it was selected just for me. I felt I was Conrad Jarrett, the sensitive depressed outsider kid twisted up in knots over his brother’s death. It’s amazing that Judith Guest could write so convincingly from a male teenager’s point of view. But then she struggled with depression and based this story on something that really happened to a family in suburban Chicago. You can feel the truth of lived experience in this classic tale of grief and growing up, and in Timothy Hutton’s performance in the 1980 movie version.


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The Catcher in the Rye

By J.D. Salinger

Book cover of The Catcher in the Rye

Why this book?

Oddly enough, Salinger’s classic was paired with Ordinary People as summer reading when I was in high school. Like everyone else, I fell in love with Holden Caulfield’s distinctive and disaffected teenage voice, but more than that, I identified with Holden’s survivor guilt. Like Conrad Jarrett in Ordinary People, Holden has lost a brother, and in mourning the loss of his little brother Allie, Holden also mourns for his own lost childhood. I guess that’s why tales of loss and coming-of-age stories go together. Whether or not we’ve experienced a grievous loss, as we grow up, we lose a part of ourselves and our old relationships. Books like Catcher made me realize I wasn’t alone.


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The Bell Jar

By Sylvia Plath

Book cover of The Bell Jar

Why this book?

Sylvia Plath is one of my favorite poets, and the prose in her autobiographical novel is almost like a poem. It’s so evocative and layered with naturalistic symbolism. The unforgettable metaphor in the book’s title, The Bell Jar, likens depression to a bell jar that warps what is seen from inside of it. How true that is! 19-year-old protagonist Esther Greenwood is another character I totally identified with, a young person whose struggle to individuate is complicated by loss. Like me, Plath lost her father when she was young and she writes about him eloquently in her poems and in this beautiful novel, her only work of prose fiction. 


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Childhood, Boyhood, Youth

By Leo Tolstoy

Book cover of Childhood, Boyhood, Youth

Why this book?

When I was in college, I told my writing teacher I wanted to write about my father’s death, which had happened when I was very little. My teacher, a famous writer, lost his father when he was very little too, but he told me he never wrote about it directly. I looked for examples in literature of someone writing autobiographically about a loss in early childhood and I only ever found one: Tolstoy’s debut novel, Childhood, Boyhood, Youth. Tolstoy’s mother died when he was 2, his father when he was 8, and he writes about it with unparalleled power across his oeuvre, but never so directly and autobiographically as in Childhood, Boyhood, Youth. He made it OK for me to write my own autobiographical novel about childhood loss.


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Frankenstein

By Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Book cover of Frankenstein

Why this book?

I may be the only person who thinks of Frankenstein as a coming-of-age story. But Frankenstein’s monster is in so many ways a child. He may have been constructed from adult body parts, but he experiences the world as if for the first time and looks to Dr. Frankenstein as a parent—a parent who spurns him. References to infancy and parents abound in this novel. Mary Shelley’s mother died in childbirth, leaving her to grow up without a mother. That longing for a missing parent and its warping effects on the child’s emotional life hit me hard in Shelley’s novel. As crazy and fantastical as its story is, Frankenstein captures the loneliness of growing up as well as any coming-of-age novel I’ve read.


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