We all know how good it feels to read a book that we can't put down and to actually feel sad to see it come to an end. I want to share with you three fabulous books, all coming of age novels, that I have recently discovered. These books have at their center young protagonists, unguided and bewildered, searching for their place and some understanding in a seemingly incomprehensible world.
The first one is "A Gate at the Stairs" by Lorrie Moore. This coming of age novel is about a year in the life of a quirky young woman Tassie Keltjin who lives in the Midwest. She goes away to college and gets a part time job as a nanny for a glamorous and mysterious couple who have adopted a baby. Her job begins before the baby has been adopted and she accompanies the parents to interviews with potential birth mothers. The heroine's sunny disposition and clever observations set a tone for the book that belies the devastating and powerful events that occur later on. She is a bright and chipper girl with an underlying loneliness that she struggles with and that shapes her reactions to the surprising tragedies that occur. Her relationship with her younger brother is beautifully drawn by the author. This book is powerful as it deals with racism, post 9/11 (she starts college in September, 2001), the ordeal of adoption, and deep secrets. It has a comic, smart tone, and as such I felt blindsided by the events towards the end. I was really moved by the story, loved the main character Tassie, and was very impressed by the excellent writing.
The second book I recently read and enjoyed is "Invisible" by Paul Auster. This novel is about as far from the Midwest atmosphere of Moore's book as you can get. It takes place in New York, Paris, and a remote island in the Caribbean. It is a series of intertwined love stories with a young man, Adam Walker, at the center of them all. It begins in 1967 when Adam is a second year student at Columbia University in New York. It too is a coming of age novel, and it also involves the protagonist getting mixed up in the lives of some sophisticated, glamorous, and in this case sinister older people. We follow Adam from his youth until late in his life.
The story is told in four interlocking parts, by three different narrators. There are questions of what is true and what is not, and we are definitely in the territory of the memoirist's subjective truth. We learn about Adam's relationship with Rudolf Born, a professor at Columbia and Born's lover Margot. Violent events occur that take Adam to Paris with a quest for revenge. In Paris Adam has a love affair with the mysterious Margot. Another woman Adam loves is his sister Gwyn. The story of this relationship is one of the most powerful parts of the book. And here is another similarity with "A Gate at the Stairs," the closeness between two siblings who are aligned because of distant and dysfunctional parents.
The surprises that come from the narrative structure -- questions arise regarding the reliability of Adam's memory -- contribute to the compelling and sinuous nature of this fabulous book.
And please can we talk about the last two pages and what they mean?
And finally I am about 150 pages into "The Invisible Bridge" by Julie Orringer. The central character is Andras Levi, a promising student of architecture who leaves his native Hungary to study in Paris in 1937, until his scholarship is revoked when anti-Jewish laws go into effect. So far I am loving the skillful way the author has evoked the world of Hungary and Paris in the late 1930's. This is another young character and his coming of age story, though here we know we are in in Europe right before WWII and the Holocaust. The book has a sweeping, epic feel to it and I have a sense that I will be swept right along with it.