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7 Books To Read While Going Through A Quarter-Life Crisis

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Coming-of-age tales have always been heartwarming — torches to light our way through our own inner struggles. Most coming-of-age stories, however, focus on a younger audience, when change is a perhaps more frightening opponent. What happens, though, when we’ve adapted to a version of change and settled for a comfortable path? When discussing a mid-life crisis, the travel path is scrutinized, with the main question being, “how did I get here?” A quarter-life crisis, however, looks at the current path, panicking about its forks. The question asked is,

“Where am I going?”

In 2018 I found myself asking that question daily, getting more and more concerned about my uncertainty. So, for 2019, I decided the year was going to be full of absolute, finite goals to use as stepping stones. One of those goals was to find 27 books to read for my 27th year. Quickly the coming of age narrative became a companion. Although I often went into books without any prior knowledge of their plots, somehow, they perfectly fit into the moments I needed them. So, what better way to celebrate a completed goal than to pass along some stones for others who might be looking for solid footing. Here are seven books to read for anyone going through it.

1. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine By Gail Honeyman

How often do you throw out a “good” or “fine” when people ask you how you’re doing, fully aware that you’re anything but? Eleanor Oliphant is 29, living in Glasglow, working at a Graphic Design company, loves crosswords, and doesn’t understand a lot of social conduct. She carries a heavy past revolving around her relationship with her mother and often spends her weekends drunk. One day Eleanor encounters a musician by the name of Johnnie Lomond and decides, without ever having spoken to him, that he is the one. Eleanor embarks on a process of self-improvement to make herself suitable for Johnnie, and it’s during this journey that she befriends a co-worker, Raymond, after helping an elderly man named Sammy after a bad fall outside their office. 

Books: Flat lay of Honeyman's book on a table next to a bowl of figs.
Quarter-Life Crisis Books: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine | theliteratureedit.com

Raymond and various members of Sammy’s family bring warmth to Eleanor’s life that she hasn’t felt before. She explores the world around her for the first time, letting herself become vulnerable. Her journey isn’t without setbacks though, after discovering Johnnie’s true and less-than-desirable nature, Eleanor spirals into a vodka induced depression. However, with the help of her new support system, Eleanor begins to rebuild a life that is all her own.

Honeyman’s book is gentle but direct in its intentions. It explores mental health in terms of isolation and trauma in an innovative way that never makes the reader afraid for Eleanor but holds their sympathy. I won’t pretend that the book doesn’t take a bit of warming up to. Eleanor is a hard character in the beginning, but the more you learn about her, the more she envelopes you, which is a very admirable narrative trait in Honeyman’s prose.

Quarter-Life Crisis Books: Why Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine Is A Book To Read

I think it’s a common occurrence to swing on the pendulum of hating ourselves and being prideful about our self-efficiency when we’re wading through hard times. It is a universal truth that we want to be able to handle our own sh*t. Sometimes, though, we just can’t, and acknowledging a need for help is important. Why be “fine” when you can thrive?

2. Tuesdays With Morrie By Mitch Albom

Avid readers of the self-help genre won’t be surprised to see this book on the list. Tuesdays With Morrie has become an iconic book for people in crises of confidence, and for good reason. Despite the book being written 22 years ago, anyone suffering from doubt will find solace in its lessons. The book details the relationship between its author, Mitch Albom, and his college professor, Morrie Schwartz. After graduating and failing to keep in touch with Morrie, Mitch becomes a successful sportswriter, though he often feels dissatisfied with how his life’s gone.

Books: Flat lay of Albom's book on a table next to a plant.
Quarter-Life Crisis Books: Tuesdays With Morrie | thegoodreaders.com

When Mitch sees Morrie on Nightline discussing his battle with ALS, he returns to Massachusetts, where the two met, to visit Morrie. He expects it to be awkward, but it’s as if nothing’s changed. Mitch and Morrie start meeting weekly to complete a project (which ends up being the book) in which they engage in thoughtful conversations about love, happiness, and death.

Tuesdays with Morrie explores grief, self-love, and affectionate friendship between men that I found refreshing to read. Albom’s book is a fantastic depiction of life in an era of social media (again, despite being before its inception). Although the concept of unfulfilling patterns remaining through decades might seem frightening, there’s also comfort in his message on how to break through them. 

Quarter-Life Crisis Books: Why Tuesdays With Morrie Is A Book To Read

At its heart, Tuesdays With Morrie is a book for anyone afraid of failure. It explores cultural checkboxes and how accomplishments become our criteria for happiness and success.

3. The Signature Of All Things By Elizabeth Gilbert

After mentioning Elizabeth Gilbert and the quarter-life crisis, most people’s minds would turn to her memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. A wonderful book, sure, but I might turn your attention to a quieter, more complex story of a late bloomer. The Signature of All Things is a lengthy, generational story, but it’s an endearing full picture of a person and her history. It begins with Henry, a scoundrel in his teenage years and the son of an employee of a well-known botanist.

To escape punishment after being caught for theft, he convinces his father’s employer to send him abroad to collect samples. After years of a strict life at sea, he returns, expecting praise, and is mocked instead by the botanist. So, accordingly, Henry becomes his (previous) employer’s biggest rival, resulting in incredible wealth. Years later he’s now a very practical man and marries a Danish woman who compliments his life-style. Together they have a daughter named Alma, who takes the story from here. 

Gilbert's book to read sitting upright next to a plant.
Quarter-Life Crisis Books: The Signature of All Things | depop.com

She’s a privileged child and a perfect model for her father. After circumstances bring her an adopted sister whose opposite and source of her newfound insecurities, she starts to explore her views of the world differently. As she ages, she spends most of her life on the family estate doing botanical research. As an adult, she’s mostly alone. Her sister and best friend are now married and her father’s too old to entertain the rounds of stimulating guests he used to be known for. She meets a botanical printer who enraptures her with his work and upon her insistence moves into the estate. After a short courtship and even shorter-lived marriage, Alma finally sets out to discover her place in the world she’s heard so much about from her father’s stories.

Quarter-Life Crisis Books: What Makes The Signature Of All Things A Book To Read

The pace of this book is slow, sticky, lush with detail that makes your eye linger on the page. It’s a fitting pace for a story about a woman who feels her life moves slower than people around her, “moss time” as she calls it. Gilbert’s thoughtful writing is observant, witty, yet lyrical, even in the portrayal of its harshest truths. Perhaps it’s because it was so refreshing to see a book set in the 18th century through a female protagonist’s eyes, but how thoughts get dissected feels special. Desire and yearning are explored in a way free of judgment, and for readers who spend a lot of time with Victorian fiction — that’s phenomenal.

This book, in my opinion, is the epitome of quarter-life anxieties: respecting the life your parents have given you, not wanting to become your parents, inferiority complexes, and the general apathy as a result of feeling lost. The unique thing about this book is the fact that a reader gets to see Alma’s life from start to finish. We get to see what she does with those anxieties, how she evolves through them, finding acceptance in what cannot be changed, and taking control of what can.

4. Shopgirl By Steve Martin

Steve Martin’s Shopgirl follows a similar, albeit more frank, storyline to Eleanor and Alma. Mirabelle is a woman in her late twenties who is waiting for life to meet her. She’s from Vermont and living in Los Angeles, working at the glove department of Neiman Marcus. Mirabelle spends most of her days in sighs and small pleasures, like nights out with her small circle of friends, the occasional date, or her paintings. Yet, she’s dissatisfied with her life’s lack of momentum.

Martin's book, Shopgirl, laying on a red backdrop.
Quarter-Life Crisis Books: Shopgirl | depop.com

She meets Jeremy, a socially awkward slacker who sincerely seems interested in Mirabelle but lacks the confidence to make her feel comfortable. Jeremy’s exit precedes the entrance of Ray Porter. He’s a wealthy, older man who comes into Neimans and asks Mirabelle out, beginning a bittersweet courtship. The two learn from each other: Mirabelle gains a new sense of independence while Ray reflects on how his casual actions affect those around him.

After a while, though, their desire for different things drives the two apart. Martin’s book is different from its aforementioned peers because Mirabelle is a very self-aware and critical character. Her biggest fault is knowing what she has to change but being afraid to. Being comfortably discontented is easier than leaping into the unknown. I think this is a story that everyone in their twenties should read because it holds an obvious, yet crucial lesson.

Quarter-Life Crisis Books: Why Shopgirl Is A Book To Read

One big change will not kickstart a completely different life. Martin’s story advocates for the importance of discipline and recognition of where you want to be that will take you to where you want to go. A move or finding “the one” isn’t going to make you happy if you’re not satisfied with yourself already. As Einstein said, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”.

5. Tonight I’m Someone Else By Chelsea Hodson

Reading this book is the equivalent of meeting someone at a party and skipping small talk, diving directly into stories about their worst thoughts and secrets. It reads like a hushed whisper; an alluring quality making you feel like you’re in on the secret that life is, indeed, messy. The nonlinear collection of essays describes Chelsea Hodson in many different phases of her life.

Chelsea Hodson's arm holding the book Tonight I'm Someone Else in front of a white wall.
Quarter-Life Crisis Books: Tonight I’m Someone Else | chelseahodson.com

Everything from working on a NASA Mars mission while dating a graffiti gang member to exploring levels of desire found while working at American Apparel. At times, Hodson’s writing flows like a stream of consciousness, meandering between scenes and metaphors to place them significantly. You want to understand Chelsea. You (and by you and I mean me) might even find yourself being a little envious of her at times.

For example, she’s very self-aware about her outlook on domesticity and how much it frightens her. The book chronicles her self-destruction in justification of self-preservation. She writes about impulses to do things, replays them, sometimes regrets them, but knows her privilege in life allows her to return to safety at any time. She stares at a hole in her ceiling and compares it to female genitalia.

Quarter-Life Crisis Books: Why Tonight I’m Someone Else Is A Book To Read

One source of anxiety that permeates my generation is the need to be interesting. Arguably, not even to be interesting, but to seem interesting, which ultimately is exhausting. Hodson’s book is noteworthy because there’s envy baked into her stories, but she allows the reader to question its existence, especially in her descriptions of feeling unhappy or lost. It is ok to be messy, but that doesn’t make you interesting. “Interesting” is in the eye of the beholder, and it’s up to you to define what it looks like.

6. Circe By Madeline Miller

There’s another very well-written book (not on this list) that says, “We accept the love we think we deserve,” and I believe that Madeline Miller’s book, Circe is a perfect emissary for that notion. Circe tells the story of a nymph navigating her life in the in-between realm of humans and gods. An innovative tale of the Other woven into threads of familiar mythological retellings that keep it grounded. She’s the daughter of sun-god, Helios and Oceanid nymph, Perse.

Quarter-Life Crisis Books: Madeline Miller's book to read, Circe, laying on a sweater surrounded by wood, leaves, and a basket.
Quarter-Life Crisis Books: Circe | whatbooktoreadnext.com

She’s not stunningly beautiful like her siblings and has a voice that the gods find grating, but humans find comforting. She discovered a talent for witchcraft after turning her beloved human into a god through the use of herbs. Eventually, her antics lead to banishment and living in solitude on the island of Aeaea. Here she develops her skills in witchcraft and has many visitors, including her suitors Hermes and Odysseus. After many years she has a son, Teleogonus, but his birth brings a dark prophecy that turns the tides on Circe’s life as she knows it. 

Circe thoughtfully discusses yearning, grief, and vulnerability. The book also emanates an academic nature. Circe’s desired and feared— and doesn’t fit entirely into any role. You could throw this book into the lineup with Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey, and Behind A Mask and it wouldn’t feel too out of place (besides the obvious not in England-ness). Miller also provides an excellent glossary on the back for anyone who’s not acquainted with the cast of characters.

Quarter-Life Crisis Books: Why Circe Is A Book To Read

Circe is a story of self-love. She battles with an image of what others have told her she is for centuries, and readers watch as she comes into herself, defining her own perceptions. When you feel lost, reading about the discovery of inner strength is nothing but inspirational.

7. Less By Andrew Sean Greer

While this protagonist is older than the other books to read on this list, it’s too good to leave off. Less is a book everyone who has ever felt lost should read. Less follows Arthur Less, a man in his 50s and a moderately successful writer who just got dumped in a casual-sort-of-not casual nine-year relationship with a much younger Freddy. Freddy’s engaged. Arthur’s invited to the wedding. He doesn’t know how to feel or what to think about this.

Quarter-Life Crisis Books: Andrew Sean Greer's book, Less, sitting in front of a map and passport.
Quarter-Life Crisis Books: Less | thejourneyingsatchel.com

So, he decides to do anything but — and embarks on a tour of everything he’d previously been ignoring: a conference, an opportunity to teach abroad, and a friend’s exotic get-away birthday. His travels lead to other lovers and a lot of self-discovery on what aging means to him. Greer’s prose is a refreshing bit of cozy melancholy. Like the view from a rain-spattered window, his lens of the world is mythically detailed, warm, and overwhelmingly charming.

Quarter-Life Crisis Books: Why Less Is A Book To Read

Yes, this is the story of a mid-life crisis, but I’ll tell you why I think it’s relevant to any age group: preservation through avoidance, which is categorically a trait of anyone in their 20-30s. Confronting harsh truths is never fun, and it’s often at the root of any crisis. That’s why they call it growth.

Will These Books Solve Your Problems?

No. As we’ve discussed, there’s no magic, two-step method for self-improvement. It’s a process, sometimes a long, uncomfortable one. However, with patience, and a well-stocked bookshelf full of good representations, even the most uncertain of us will make it through.