The second coming of age: the books charting the messiness of adulthood

Written by Soraya Bouazzaoui

A new generation of books are capturing the chaos of our 20s, an age when we’re technically adults but definitely don’t feel like grown-ups.

When we think of the ‘coming of age’ genre, we tend to think of young adult books. The world of YA fiction is teeming with stories that lay down the foundations for teenagers to become adults, helping them to understand that they’re not children anymore – they’re capable of making decisions for themselves and having autonomy.

But what about the stories for the 20-year-olds stepping into the workforce for the first time? For the new graduates who are technically adults, but not really, because surely being a grown-up means you’re not still looking for the more capable adult in the room, that you don’t cringe in horror at the idea of calling the GP yourself and that you have a solid trajectory of where your life is going? This pivotal moment in your 20s, when you realise you have to learn what council tax is and start looking at your calendar weeks in advance to figure out when you’re going to hang out with friends, deserves a genre title of its own: the second coming of age.

In the early 00s, readers were inundated with this genre. Authors such as Lauren Weisberger, Emma McLaughlin and Sophie Kinsella laid the groundwork: their novels depicted young women entering the workforce and waving goodbye to their lack of responsibilities. Back then, these books were described as ‘chick lit’, a title far too vague and broad to adequately define this sweet spot of becoming an adult. 

The stories weren’t always the most relatable, though: books such as The Devil Wears Prada, Everyone Worth Knowing and Sex And The City belong in literature’s hall of fame, but there was always a layer of glamour that didn’t reflect the real world. “I think those books were aspirational without any touches of reality,” says Florence Rees, a literary agent who works with authors such as Annie Lord and Salma El-Wardany. “No one truly lived that life of glamour and luxury that early on in life.”

Conversations With Friends will be coming to BBC One in 2022.

The trend seemed to fade towards the end of that decade, being replaced with the boom in supernatural romance (love you forever, Twilight). But following the success of Sally Rooney’s 2017 debut Conversations With Friends and Dolly Alderton’s hit 2018 memoir Everything I Know About Love, it appeared as if the genre was on the cusp of booming once more, opening the doors for more debut writers to thrive in a space that depicted characters – or themselves – as ‘figuring it out’.

More recently, we’ve seen the release of The Receipts podcast’s non-fiction debut, Keep The Receipts, and Salma El-Wardany’s novel These Impossible Things, as well as memoirs from Annie Lord and Lauren Rae. Along with hit TV adaptations of Alderton and Rooney’s books, their success proves there’s a female audience out there that is hungry for their lives to be depicted or reflected in a way it hasn’t been before.

How does this new wave of second coming of age stories differ from its predecessors? The cost of living has risen exponentially within the last 12 years, while salaries have remained stagnant. “Everything is harder for our generation and writers can put these struggles they’re facing under a microscope and create art from their lives,” Rees says, adding: “It’s now harder to ‘be an adult’ in the traditional ways generations have before us – moving out, being financially independent, secure jobs, married by the time you’re 30, so the 20-somethings are questioning whether they want those things.” Annie Lord, author of Notes On Heartbreak, agrees. “It’s so hard for us to grow up now,” she says. “We can’t buy houses; we want to settle down much later, if it all… I’m 27, but I act like a 21-year-old. Going out all the time, never doing a big food shop, living in a big messy house share.”

The political landscape also has inevitably altered the appeal of this genre, and how young readers explore their identities and experiences as marginalised people. Katie Packer, senior commissioning editor of Keep The Receipts, believes that that is what separates the early 2000s literary landscape from today. “A lot of these books came from women in more privileged positions, ie white, cis, middle to upper class,” she notes, adding that they were often “missing all the layers that come with being 20-something and being working class or Black or bisexual”. In contrast, she says: “Keep The Receipts started as a podcast that gave voice to the 20-somethings from underrepresented backgrounds – sharing experiences and building a community of like-minded women” and thus creating a space for these women, and people, that hadn’t otherwise existed in the genre before.

Indeed, Lauren Rae, author of Love, Wine And Other Highs, notes that she could only ever relate to the stories told by authors such as Weisberger and Kinsella up to a certain point. “I grew up loving and relating to so many books like this, and although I saw my personality traits reflected in many of the characters I adored, I never necessarily felt the representation or was able to place myself in the stories,” she says.

In today’s market for second coming of age stories, there is “more focus on relatability now”, says editor Victoria Haslam. “It’s incredibly reassuring to know that other people don’t have everything all figured out.” It’s not hard to see the appeal, as Lord puts it: “I like reading about people trying and failing to work it out because I’m very much doing that myself.”

Lord and Rae both set out to take these less glamorous elements of your 20s, stripping them back to reveal the darker side, and adding humour where they felt appropriate. While Lord’s memoir peels away the wrapping paper that surrounds the ‘ugly parts’ of heartbreak, Rae’s memoir dives into her life as a young Black girl becoming a woman in London. Both visit the shores of grief and hurt without jeopardising the comical elements of their experiences and highlight the importance of surrounding friendships during this period.

Our 20s can be exhilarating, but they can nose dive into ugly territory incredibly quickly. Rae notes her book has “no real moral or ending because I’m still unsure and don’t yet have an understanding of being a real-life grown-up.” She hopes her book allows readers to give themselves the grace of understanding that this is OK, so that they “know it might not get better; it might even get worse”.

Similarly, El-Wardany, whose debut These Impossible Things was released this year, believes that it is the rawness with which this age group feels their emotions that makes them seek it out in books. “Everything is so urgent and real and big when you’re in your early 20s,” she says, adding: “You feel everything so keenly and with such depth, and I think there’s great comfort in putting those emotions on the page.”

Best non-fiction of 2022: Notes On Heartbreak by Annie Lord

El-Wardany’s book depicts the lives of three best friends, newly graduated, as they drift apart in the year following university. In that time, the friends experience life-changing adjustments – whether that’s in terms of careers or romantic relationships – as they attempt to navigate their adult lives without each other. The lack of the friends’ presence is palpable with each character and leaves the reader mourning with each of them as they try to understand what they are supposed to do with this new life. “I really wanted to put the magnitude of that feeling you have when you’re navigating the bridge between youth and adulthood on the page,” she says.

The pandemic and lockdowns may have caused the genre to enjoy a comeback too. “I think it showed a lot of people that no matter how well you plan in life, the goals you have, how you see your life unfolding, it’s all impossible to control,” says Rees. That lack of control and sense of powerlessness is reflected in many of these stories. Lord, who “retreated back into being a teenager” while back at her parents’ home during lockdown, reckons that “becoming this kid again allowed me to rethink what sort of adult I wanted to be: what values and what kind of life I want.” It saw her focus on how “important friendship is to me, how I wanted to be more crazy and take more risks [and to] stop thinking so much about others’ opinions”.

Lauren Rae, author of Love, Wine and Other Highs

Indeed, friendship is a throughline in many of these stories (think of Alderton’s memoir and the TV version, where the real love story is between her and her best friend) giving the space and attention that it didn’t always receive in earlier iterations of the genre, where platonic relationships were often sidelined in favour of romantic ones. “We’re seeing a shift from romantic relationships being the ultimate goal in life and realising that friendships are equally important and deserve more attention in books,” Rees says. 

“I think our generation believes in this [romantic relationships] less,’ Lord concludes. “We’re not as convinced by the idea that there’s one person that can fulfil all your needs. Friendship is so enduring; less intense but so much more durable and secure. In a world that’s so unpredictable, we recognise the importance of these relationships to happiness.”

For El-Wardany: “Friendships are so key to getting you through the messy and difficult parts of life, and there is nothing messier than your early 20s. I think friendships are the anchor that people need. It certainly was like that for my characters.” It’s something that Rae’s readers have responded to strongly, too, with many getting in touch to reveal they “were experiencing their own friendship fallouts. Similarly to how Jacqueline Wilson wrote of fallouts in our teens about the shifts at those ages, I sort of crave that rawness in my adulthood.”

These Impossible Things by Salma el-Wardany

With this new wave of debut authors, revisiting the theme of ‘figuring it out’ comes with the stripping away of rose-tinted glasses. Unlike Carrie Bradshaw, these readers cannot live in a one-bedroom apartment on a columnist’s salary. Some live in house shares with best friends – or even people they hate – while some still remain at home under the eye of their parents, their maturity capped while stuck between having an adult job and being told not to be so loud when they come home late on Friday night. 

The political climate, change of social issues and financial landscape has individually tampered with the trajectory of how our lives unfold now – there is no one simple coming of age trajectory, and writers like Lord, Rae and El-Wardany are reflecting that in their writing with an honesty that isn’t always pretty but has never been more necessary. 

Images: courtesy of publishers

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