Coming-of-age stories are an indelible part of literature; from Huckleberry to Scout, the characters that fill their pages are iconic. Here are six debuts that explore, through a wide range of mode and method, the painful path to maturity.
The claustrophobic setting of Relief Map (Tin House. Mar. 2016. ISBN 9781941040225. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781941040232) showcases Rosalie Knecht’s ability to create a place and enfold readers within its borders. In a small Pennsylvania town, 16-year-old Livy spins through a remarkable summer—one in which her town is surrounded by maladroit cops and federal agents, while she and her best friend wade through creeks to outwit them. Then Livy encounters a suspected terrorist and, as the plot moves forward, the strengths and failings of her community. With a fluid style, Knecht crafts an elegiac story of realizations, both the slow simmering kind and those that erupt out of thick, dusty air.
It is a road often trod—coming to New York City to escape something indefinable in the hopes of finding something unknowable. Tess, the protagonist of Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter (Knopf. May 2016. ISBN 9781101875940. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781101875957), does just this, getting stopped at the tollbooth on the way in because she has no change before finally gaining admittance. Hired by one of the city’s popular restaurants, she finds herself in a swamp of personalities and experiences she is unprepared to navigate. But navigate she does in this bright, gimlet-eyed debut in which the politics of mean-girl high school acceptance has nothing on the complexities of waitstaff. At once self-aware and lyrical, Danler’s razor-sharp narrative details the gritty, fascinating particulars of the restaurant life Anthony Bourdain first exposed.
You Should Pity Us Instead by Amy Gustine (Sarabande. Feb. 2016. ISBN 9781941411193. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781941411209) offers a collection of 11 incandescent short stories—a mother searches for her kidnapped son in Gaza, a doctor deals with immigrants at Ellis Island. The final piece, “Half-Life,” is a compact bullet of a coming-of-age tale with deft observation. In it, a young woman recently aged out of the foster care system is hired as a nanny to the grandchildren of the judge who destroyed her family. Sarah, now on her own and desperately poor, is entrusted with the welfare of smart-as-a-whip Bea and her baby brother. She makes their meals, cooking a bit more food to keep herself fed as well, and searches through their parents’ house. As is the entire collection, the story is a disconcerting marvel, rife with undertow and carried out in crystalline clear prose and exquisite construction.
Chosen for their knowledge of sign language, the Freeman family—Laurel, Charles, and daughters Charlotte and Callie—move into the Toneybee Institute to live with a chimpanzee named Charlie and teach him the skill. Kaitlyn Greenidge’s We Love You, Charlie Freeman (Algonquin. Mar. 2016. ISBN 9781616204679. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781616206079) goes on to tell their accounts, intertwined with historical background on the institute. Laurel has a number of issues with communication, having grown up in Maine as the only African American kid in her town, but she takes the chance to show Charlie how to converse. However, the cost of his education is racked up against her family—a family isolated within a conclave of researchers. Charlotte, just entering high school, tells much of the story and discovers the truth about Toneybee. Communicating, she finds, is far more complicated than any one sign.
Private Citizens (Morrow. Feb. 2016. ISBN 9780062399106. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062399113) is an edgy and darkly empathetic character study that skewers even as it unveils. With a sharp and merciless eye, author Tony Tulathimutte mines the satiric landscape of a twentysomething. He follows the disintegrating lives of four recent Stanford graduates, all of whom are lost among their self-examination and desperate hopes. Cory unexpectedly inherits a failing nonprofit that only continues to fail. Linda is the type of person who goes to rehab because it might be more interesting than her current life. Henrik loses his grad funding, almost not understanding what that really means. And Will, who makes more money than he is worth in the IT field, tips over the edge to keep his girlfriend, with horrendous results.
In The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls , Anton DiSclafani (Riverhead. 2014. ISBN 9781101616284. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781101616284) conjures up 15-year-old Thea, placing her in an exclusive boarding school nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina during the 1930s. Thea was banished from her home in Florida and separated from her fraternal twin owing to a scandal that will reverberate through her life. At the camp, she finds herself in a new world—one full of girls all seeking themselves, horses and lineage, and dangerous possibilities. In her atmospheric, reflective text, DiSclafani charts Thea’s journey as a girl grown wiser than her parents and all too aware of the eddies into which she elects to wade.
Neal Wyatt compiles LJ’s online feature Wyatt’s World and is the author of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers’ advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader’s Shelf should contact her directly at Readers_Shelf@comcast.net