Common knowledge marks the Coming of Age of an individual during adolescence—that moment when the innocence of childhood is broken by the realities of adulthood. The clash shakes us and we become teenagers—smaller adults negotiating between the childhood world and the adult world. To come to age isn’t however dictated by a number (or years lived on earth) —not really. Adolescence, after all, is a fairly new concept brought about by industrialization and the growth of schools. In some parts of the world, the rites of passage that mark this coming of age can happen as early as nine years old. For the most part, it is merely marked by puberty.
However, as we explore this idea in our bimonthly theme, we wonder: What does it mean to come of age? When do we break from our childhood innocence? We’ve heard of movies and books relegated as coming of age and often the protagonists are children or teens navigating the world and facing real heavy realities the world throws at them. Today and for the coming week I’ll be exploring this theme vis-à-vis the books I’ve read over the span of my reading life.
Coming of Age as an experience of Love
Do you remember falling in love for the first time? Do you remember it being unreciprocated? Short lived as the summer it happened? Do you remember how changed you were after? First loves are often related to coming of age. It is that singular moment when one’s world expands and the young innocent heart desires nothing more than to be loved back by the object of his/her affection. And with first loves comes the first heartbreak or the first disappointment. At that moment, we are not completely kids anymore, but we aren’t completely adults, yet everything about us has changed.
I recall Olive’s Ocean where Henkes’ protagonist, Martha, falls in love and thought it reciprocated only to discover it was one big joke. But it’s that realization, the infatuation and the tears that take Martha to a journey towards self-discovery, an inevitability when one falls in love and loses love.
While not really completely about first love, Jeanne Birdsall, in her first installment of The Penderwicks touches on first love through the older sister, Rosalind. It’s both sweet and painful as she discovers the boy of her affections has a girlfriend. This little bit on Rosalind changes her, she becomes more aware of her hair, more conscious of every touch and look.
A more obscure classic also comes to mind, Dorothy Strachey’s Olivia. The protagonist of this Vintage Classic is shipped to boarding school, she falls in love with her female teacher which leads to a discovery of who she is and where she stands in the greater scheme of the all-girl’s boarding school. There is a sense of clinging, a desire to prolong the vacuum she lives in only to wake to the reality that this ends and she is forever changed.
But should I choose a book that encapsulates what it means to fall in love, to fall out of love, to linger in the in-between of love, it would be David Levithan’s collection of stories called How They Met and Other Stories. Levithan calls this a collection of stories about love, not love stories. The stories explore an array of relationships and what the protagonists take from it. It isn’t cliché, it is real. Each character discovers that maybe there is more about the term ‘us’ than mere romantic connotations. Some stories deal with standing up for the kind of love that society may not stand for. Some tell you about relationships that have inevitable end, where forever isn’t even in the horizon. And for us, who at one point have been there, can sink their teeth into this book and know that falling in love, being in love, and falling out of love changes us, especially when it happens for the very first time.
Another recent read that captures this feeling is Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park where two oddballs fall in love not at first sight, but gradually as each discover what one has to offer. This particular book, delves into dealing with love, the realities of high school and family. The tension, the amount of passion and grittiness, is believable that the change we see in these two characters can only make you love them more. Moreover, this novel captures coming of age as an experience of love when our two protagonists discover there is something bigger than the love they have and they have to face the bigger problems that no amount of intensity between them can resolve that easily.
The last two books I mentioned deserve a full review, which we hope we can do for you in the coming weeks. It is interesting to note however, as I write this little post, a lot of coming of age stories that involve first love revolve around female protagonists. In some discussions I’ve had with Myra and Fats we’re seeing this gender difference in the literature we’ve read so far. How true this is, we’ll touch on in the next few posts.
Love and coming of age, it almost a cliché, but it’s too real to ignore. When we first discover love we become conscious of ourselves. We take time to clean up how we look, to let the world see that we are ‘mature’ enough to love. There’s even an insistence of this love being more than an infatuation. We lose the child-like abandon and become self-aware.
Have you ever felt this way? Do you know other books that deal with this theme?
Next Saturday, we’ll be talking more about Coming of Age and Loss.