There’s never a particularly good time to be struck with soul-deep anxiety about the direction of one’s life. Plenty of people experience this dread and uncertainty in their 20s, at which point it becomes labeled a quarter-life crisis. It makes sense. Shortly after making the transition from childhood to adulthood, there can be a feeling of now what? The quarter-life crisis is not especially new, despite the new term. Recently, I’ve been looking at artistic depictions of Faust, the oft-adapted tale of the dissatisfied character who makes a deal with the devil. Frankly, he’s looking pretty youthful in some of them.
The complexities of contemporary life — intersections of late stage capitalism, rapidly advancing technology, and general rudderlessness — make these episodes of uncertainty perfect novel fodder. There are plenty of self help and pop psychology books to help readers navigate this tumultuous time. Still, novels give license for a premise to go to more extreme conclusions. Alternatively, they can provide a deeply personal and nuanced look at this time in life. Take heart; I promise it isn’t all doom and gloom and alienation. Here are nine modern novels about quarter-life crises.
A Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole
Sometimes you have to just throw out the plan and apprentice yourself to a swordsmith in Scotland. In this entry in Cole’s electric Reluctant Royals series, Portia is a hot mess who upends her life to do exactly that. The swordsmith turns out to be the son of a duke, because this is romance, after all. It’s the kind of book that makes you hopeful about making big moves in life. Those big moves can yield big results! This is the second book in the series, and while it can be read as a standalone I strongly recommend all of them. There’s an undercurrent of reevaluating one’s life plan as a running theme alongside the romance.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
This fascinating book is a sharp look at race, class, and identity. Emira, adrift after college, is acting as the nanny for an affluent white family. After the inciting incident of an accusation of kidnapping in a grocery store, the relationships between the main characters come in and out of focus. Eventually, everything becomes crystal clear by the end. Some people use Get Out comparisons to imply this story has a thriller vibe, but it’s very mannered and does not veer into science fiction at all. What’s chilling is how quietly realistic it is.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Graduate school can be a perilous place for people prone to existential introspection. While one can say this book is about the challenges faced by a southern gay Black biochemistry grad student living in the midwest, that doesn’t convey the richness and nuance of the novel. It captures the deep longing for a sense of self in a hostile place, and the desire to open up to people despite the seeming hopelessness of it. It’s not necessarily a book to hand you tidy conclusions, but definitely one to walk alongside.
Promising Young Women by Caroline O’Donoghue
(Not to be confused with the movie Promising Young Woman!) There’s something almost cliche about the idea of engaging in an affair to stave off the ennui of one’s life. Nonetheless, the cleverest writers can spin gold out of ideas that might otherwise seem well-trod. In this novel, recently single underachieving twentysomething Jane falls headlong into an affair with her much older boss, despite its potentially cataclysmic effects on her life. There’s a strange, gothic twist that takes it into a thrilling realm. A snappy, funny cautionary tale.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
If you’ve had mental health struggles, you might know the feeling of wishing for something deeply self-indulgent, like being able to sleep for a year. On paper, the narrator of this book has everything going for her. Still dissatisfied, she induces a year-long stupor with the help of an enabling therapist providing ample medication. It’s a darkly funny and takes an offbeat look at life in New York, toxic relationships, and perhaps the futility of trying to escape the inevitable pain of being alive.
Severance by Ling Ma
Plenty of warning on this one if you don’t want to read a novel about a pandemic. If you haven’t had a quarter-life crisis, you might lucky enough to be truly sitting pretty. Or you might be unwittingly on a conveyor belt to nowhere good. That devotion to routine might lead to a failure to notice a plague sweeping the land, as happens to Candace Chen in this novel. There’s truly nothing like an apocalypse to shake you out of the daily rituals, and this dystopian send-up of our contemporary society might give you a needed jolt.
The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
An important aspect of navigating adulthood is determining where to place one’s faith, if anywhere at all. This book is a meditation on that topic within the narrative of a cult charged with a deadly bombing. People in the midst of a quarter-life crisis can be quite vulnerable to exploitation. Cult leaders know that all too well. Will and Phoebe, the two main characters of this novel, see faith and the secretive and extremist religious group Phoebe has been drawn into very differently.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
An emerging understanding as we clamber into adulthood is complexity of the history that led to our existence. This exquisite book investigates the fraught relationship between Little Dog, the Vietnamese narrator in his late 20s, and his illiterate mother. Little Dog uses that extended history to provide glimpses into his life while exploring issues of sexuality, masculinity, race, and class. It’s a lyrical and haunting work about trauma and and connection. Less a book to read for its plot or story per se than for its transcendent language and raw honesty.
Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers
Ever felt so unmoored by everything that you got blackout drunk and found yourself married in Los Vegas in the morning? Despite a premise that makes it sound like a broad romcom, it’s a tender novel. It’s the story of finding one’s feet again after walking a path for a long time in a direction that seemed good at the outset. Grace Porter’s decision to seek out Yuki, the woman she apparently blissfully wedded, challenges her to grapple with what she wants from her career, her family relationships, and life in general. Full of found family and dreamy emotions, it’s a heartwarming adventure through life after grad school.
If you’re looking for more books to help you navigate that quarter-life crisis, we’ve got you covered. Reading can help improve mental health, even when it’s hard to concentrate. No one is alone in their feelings, and we are always here to help find the books that demonstrate that.