7 Heart-Wrenching Novels About Millennials Trying To Figure It Out
The best and most beautiful books are those in which we see ourselves. For Millennials in particular, any well-written tale of their experience is a diamond in the rough of articles about everything they’re killing. These books are true treasures, but they’re surprisingly few and far between, so we’ve taken the time to collect them for your reading pleasure.
Though by no means a comprehensive list, these titles will help any young Millennial regain their faith in literary representation — and show anyone else that there’s more to them than hijacking businesses and burying themselves in their phones.
Rachel Khong’s debut novel charts the course of thirty-year-old Ruth’s newly fragmented life, beginning the day after Christmas when a neighbor discovers her father’s pants hanging from a tree. “Well, shit,” Ruth responds, setting the novel’s tone of blunt, slightly dark hilarity. Her father has Alzheimer’s disease, and Ruth has returned home to tend to his health as well as her own mental haunts: frequent, irrepressible thoughts of the fiancé who left her for another woman.
Ruth soon settles into a semi-routine, alternately joking with and memory-jogging her father while skeptically dispensing her mother’s prescribed treatment of fruit juices and vitamins. A complex and fascinating web of relationships comes to life in the ensuing year, all written in Khong’s cut-to-the-quick style that will entice even the most reluctant reader.
Ruth may not exactly “find herself” — while her father is surely losing himself — for this a book of minutiae, not miracles. But still, the crisp, vibrant details of the text can’t help but infuse you with hope for your own .
Another stunning debut novel from a young female author, The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky takes us through not just a year, but the entire life of its raw, striving heroine, Leda. An aspiring young author, she spends wistful afternoons people-watching on public transport and in local cafés, thinking deeply about everything from vegan muffins to her first kiss.
But all that thoughtful watching is merely a veil for what Leda’s actually searching for: true love. Beautifully capturing a Millennial sense of yearning for things that seem just out of reach, Casale details this pursuit with sharp and true emotions. The book then follows Leda as she moves across the country with her newfound boyfriend and struggles to find purpose. She attempts to write a novel, binge-watches daytime television, and even works for a spell in one of the coffee shops she so reveres.
Eventually, Leda does manage to make a simple, happy life for herself, complete with marriage and motherhood. The one thing she never gets around to doing, of course, is right there in the title — but don’t worry, it never holds her back.
When literary history looks back on this era, Stephanie Danler’s 2016 novel Sweetbitter may turn out to be the quintessential Millennial bildungsroman. Twenty-two-year-old Tess moves to New York seeking that seductive trifecta of escape, meaning, and reinvention. Instead (or perhaps because) of this, she begins working for one of the city’s most eminent restaurants, where she meets a host of strange and wonderful characters.
Tess tries desperately to fit in with her hard-partying coworkers, and though she flounders at first, eventually they embrace her as one of their own. She starts sleeping with the beautiful bartender, Jake, and sommelier Simone becomes her personal mentor. But the more Tess discovers about their past, the more dissatisfied she becomes with the restaurant lifestyle as a whole.
As sweet in its careful prose and intimate culinary knowledge as it is bitter in Tess’s disillusionment, this novel exposes the working Millennial experience with an unprecedented level of honesty.
For those who enjoy a variety of voices all carefully arranged to complement each other, The Ensemble is the novel for you. This book, also Gabel’s first, tracks the inextricable lives of the four twenty-something members of the Van Ness Quartet: Jana on first violin, Brit on second, Henry on viola, and Daniel on cello.
Vigorously distinct in both musical and personal style, these characters nevertheless weave together seamlessly in Gabel’s skilled portrayal of creative life. (The specialist musical language here also closely recalls Sweetbitter’s expert culinary terminology.)
We see the ensemble’s collective and respective relationships dissolve and rekindle, families abandoned and formed, and injuries that flare and threaten the fate of the group — all of which they experience through the lens of anguished, creative youth. And though each character’s individual narrative is lovely on its own, they achieve true resonance only when their voices are intertwined, not unlike an ensemble piece.
The Idiot might be a literary homage to Dostoevsky, but that doesn’t make it any less readable or relatable. Our narrator is Selin, a college freshman in the ’90s who may not technically be a Millennial (she’s off by a year or two), but certainly encapsulates the spirit.
The greatness of The Idiot lies in the juxtaposition of Selin’s brilliantly incisive voice and her own, well, idiocy. Not only has she no previous experience with electronic correspondence, she also can’t make sense of her relationship with Ivan, the “unreasonably tall” Hungarian with whom she strikes up a sort-of relationship — through none other than the mysterious medium of email.
Yet the minute descriptions of her life and interactions cuts straight to the heart of each matter. When an art teacher criticizes her pieces by calling them “little-girlish,” Selin replies, “The thing is, it wasn’t so long ago that I was a little girl.” Her simultaneous naiveté and self-awareness will resonate with Millennials everywhere: we may not know what we’re doing, but at least we’re aware that we don’t, and we hope to be on our way soon.*
The Lesser Bohemians isn’t for everyone. Unlike the many books on this list that are written in a candid, accessible style, Eimear McBride’s second novel is as much of a linguistic jungle as her debut, and it can be a struggle to slice your way through. Still, her narration grabs you from the first page with bright, jagged force: “City opening itself behind. Here’s to be for its life is the bite and would be start of mine.”
Eily is an eighteen-year-old Irish student recently transplanted to London, in search of education and, more urgently (for her at least), sex. She begins a relationship with an unstable actor more than twice her age, which at first is purely physical but then morphs into a serious romantic attachment — made all the more intense by McBride’s unorthodox stream-of-consciousness writing.
Indeed, this novel may be hard to decipher, but the reward for doing so is profound: a beautifully vulnerable depiction of young love, desperate and unsure, as we know it so often is.
Prep is a classic of Millennial literature, both in the sense that it’s exceptionally written and because of its age: it was released in 2005, well over a decade before any of the other books listed here. However, age has only made this intimately detailed story of a young lonely prep school student even more timeless.
When Lee Fiora is admitted to the prestigious Ault School, hundreds of miles away from her Indiana hometown, she knows it will change everything. She’s right: the next four years end up being some of the most awkward, confusing, and painful of Lee’s life, and Sittenfeld describes them with such remarkable precision that you almost don’t believe that Prep is fiction. It’s a crystal-clear reflection of youth’s self-consciousness, reminiscent of Bo Burnham’s recent film Eighth Grade — or rather, Burnham’s writing is a worthy successor to Prep.
The book’s age-defying relatability offers a reassuring perspective for Millennials: that we are not alone in feeling lost and uncertain. No matter what challenges come our way — whether it’s a dementia-addled father, an intimidating change of scenery, or a case of unrequited love — these books testify to the fact we will all, eventually, figure it out.
*The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky contains a similar sentiment, a thought Leda has while sitting in a coffee shop: “At least I know that I don’t have my life together. At least I know that I don’t know.”