The best midlife (yes, midlife!) coming-of-age novels

The Books I Picked & Why

Free Love

By Tessa Hadley

Book cover of Free Love

Why this book?

Tessa Hadley’s latest novel Free Love is set in 1967, and it follows forty-year-old Phyllis Fischer through a life-changing year. After a kiss with a twenty-something family friend, Phyllis is moved to leave behind her life as a contented suburban wife and mom, and to enter a very different life in London. Phyllis doesn’t always make the best choices, but she finds her own way twenty years after marrying and having children. Tessa Hadley always writes beautifully layered novels, and Free Love is a compelling look at a family forced to change, as well as a gorgeous evocation of a tumultuous time. 

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Amy and Isabelle

By Elizabeth Strout

Book cover of Amy and Isabelle

Why this book?

Elizabeth Strout’s debut novel is a dual coming-of-age novel, at least in my view. Single mother Isabelle and her sixteen-year-old daughter Amy live in the small, gossipy New England mill town of Shirley Falls. It’s the late ‘60s, and Isabelle is determined to raise her daughter right and live a proper life. But Amy falls in love with the wrong guy. As teenage Amy rebels against Isabelle’s strictures, and as Isabelle tries to ferret out what Amy’s been up to, they move through a rough summer, and both are changed as they begin to understand themselves, and one another, differently. As always with Elizabeth Strout, beautiful character studies, a complete and lived-in setting, and a compelling story.

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By Sue Miller

Book cover of Monogamy

Why this book?

Sue Miller’s latest novel is partly an exploration of a long marriage, as its title suggests, but it’s also about a woman who finds a very different understanding of herself after her husband dies too soon. Annie and Graham have made a good life in Cambridge, MA, Graham as the owner of a bookstore and Annie as an artist; they’ve been married for thirty years and have a grown daughter, and Graham has a son by his first marriage. After Graham dies suddenly, Annie goes from deep mourning to learning a terrible secret about Graham, and finally to a new sense of her husband, her marriage, and herself. It’s also a layered look at a family, and all its complications.

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Where'd You Go, Bernadette

By Maria Semple

Book cover of Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Why this book?

Maria Semple’s comic novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette looks at wife and mom Bernadette, who’s falling apart: she can’t deal with her hometown, Seattle, the other moms in her orbit, her neighbors, or much of anything, really. Overwhelmed, Bernadette breaks down and disappears, which leaves Bernadette’s middle-school-age daughter, Bee, to figure out where Bernadette has gone, and why. By the end of this novel, Bernadette, who’s taken herself on a very unlikely trip, has gotten herself together in a whole new way. Where’d You Go, Bernadette also makes great use of emails, texts, and other fictional documents, making it a partly epistolary novel.

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By Carol Shields

Book cover of Unless

Why this book?

Carol Shields’ last novel, Unless (published after her death) follows forty-something mom Reta Winters: Reta’s three daughters are almost grown, she has decent work translating French writers, and she has a supportive husband. Then oldest daughter Norah disappears, and it turns out Norah is now living on the streets of downtown Toronto, wearing a sign around her neck that reads “goodness,” but not speaking a word. This sounds like a bleak scenario, having one’s daughter reject everything she’s grown up with and refusing to explain. But Unless is a sharp, thoughtful, and even funny novel, one that’s not like any other that I’ve read, and Norah’s disappearance leads Reta to come of age as she questions every aspect of her life. 

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