In about a month, there will be amber ales and heavy stouts (probably even some IPAs) infused with pumpkin flavor on every shelf of every package store in New England. I can't honestly say if this trend exists outside the charter colonies, though I think it's safe to guess that it does. Hey, if Starbucks can do it, why can't Southern Tier Brewing Company?
Regardless of your taste in beer or coffee, the fact remains that summer is coming to a close. Soon, students will be making their annual pilgrimage to institutions they say they hate but in fact they seek shelter in, and bathing suits will be traded for yoga pants and North Faces. I for one, am looking forward to it. Fall's my favorite time of year and then right behind that is winter and that sweet white powder that falls from the sky. My snowboard has already started to hum from its storage spot in the basement, vibrating the hardwood floors like a young girl's ghost. But, before we close the chapter that is humidity and unintended sweat, let's give summer its due: it was nice to sit on the deck and read, and because of that I was able to catch up on the books sitting in my too be read pile.
Starting out this year, I set my usual goal of 24, and then upped it to 52 when I discovered the #52book challenge which involved reading one book for each week of the year. Then I subsequently realized how bad of an idea that was and returned the number to a happy medium: 36. And, according to Goodreads I am currently on track with reaching that goal.
While I've had the good fortune of reading quite a few good books this year (Bad Blood is the glorious account of a millennial train-wreck brought on by greed and the new American Dream, and I can't wait to watch her trial next year - let's by the popcorn now, shall we?) I want to highlight the last two novels I finished reading: Saltwater by Jessica Andrews, and Sally Rooney's Normal People.
Whenever I travel I try to pick up a collection of short stories by local writers or a local press. If I can't find an anthology, I'll try to find something by a local writer or that takes place in the area I'm visiting. Bonus points if it meets both these categories. Saltwater, thanks to two helpful book clerks at The Riverside Bookshop in London, met both of those requirements.
While I had never heard of Saltwater before my trip to London, I had heard of Normal People, seen it quite a lot actually. Normal People is Irish author Sally Rooney's second novel, and the 28-year old is being hailed as the First Great Millennial Author. And I'll be damned... Her novel was as great as everyone says. I currently have her first, Conversations with Friends on hold at the library (every time I get a text I cross my fingers it's the circulation desk).
Both of these novels are categorized as coming-of-age. And what I love about the way literature reflects the real world is that these narratives, and not just these two but a lot of recent COA books, is that they involve twenty-somethings, and in the rare case (because I would argue that Ohio by Stephen Markley is coming of age or at least coming to reality) near thirty year olds.
Not only do I enjoy this trend because I just hit 30 myself, and anything to tie me to confused angsty youth is fine by me, but like I said before, it reflects a reality. Kids aren't moving out of their parent's houses at 18 anymore; the average is closer to 25. College graduates are moving back home from a combination of crippling debt and poor job prospects. And, as we set the new canon of contemporary fiction, it's import that literature reflects the truth. Both Saltwater and Normal People are so truthful it burns.
Both novels focus heavily on relationships and vulnerability, though they differ in notable ways. Saltwater follows the story of a main character returning to the Irish countryside following the death of her grandfather. Her mother returns with her, but something is fractured in their relationship. As the novel progresses, you learn that it's not just the mother-daughter relationship that's experienced trouble. The narrator reflects on growing up in a household with a deaf brother and an alcoholic father, both factors in the familial turmoil she experiences as she tries to find her own identity. One thing I particularly loved about Saltwater is that it's told in near microscopic chapters, each one barely more than a few paragraphs. This, to me, intensified the fractured feeling not only surrounding the narrator and her home life, but the state of the world for people her age in general. Split between social media lives, real lives, working lives, family lives, and just-trying-to-be-us lives, the style of writing reflects those unavoidably split personalities.
Where Saltwater examines family relationships while grazing ever so slightly over personal ones, Sally Rooney's Normal People does the opposite. Following two high school students in rural Ireland, it examines their relationship (and periodic lack-there-of) through school, the death of a mutual friend, and university in Dublin.
Normal People draws on the idea of social structure, and how that can change from year-to-year, sometimes in the most shocking ways. I didn't believe the hype around the novel despite hearing of Sally Rooney in podcasts and news articles. But halfway through the novel I remember putting it down and thinking God damn it. It was as good as everyone said. Since finishing the book I've read some of her short fiction and an interview with her in The New Yorker. I strongly suggest you do the same.
The thing about relationships, whether those in the family or those outside of it, is that they are ever changing. Whether we as a society want to adapt to the changing landscape that is the world, whether we want to admit it or not, the way we interact with it and subsequently others living in it, does change. Both of these novels are raw, impressive examinations of the way those relationships exist for the millennial age. I felt, on more than one occasion, that both of these novels spoke to something I had either gone through or felt tied to in some way.
So I say to both Sally Rooney and Jessica Andrews: thank you. And to the rest of you spending your time reading this: pick up a copy of these two novels. You won't be disappointed.