Thursday, May 23, 2013


Hello to All That: 10 Books For Recent Grads

Long before Girls debuted, I was addicted to books featuring eye-on-the-main-chance nouvelles. This yen becomes particularly intense in the month of May, when a slew of new graduates set out for cities big and small, where they’ll work hard, take risks, and make a lot of mistakes. They will triumphantly secure dilapidated apartments and promptly learn to loathe them. Their suitors will be puerile and sophisticated, reckless and devoted. Some friends will become like family, while others will simply disappear. Mercurial bosses and duplicitous colleagues usually make an appearance. The women themselves are certainly imperfect characters, but they’re almost always intelligent, a bit peculiar, and above all, hell-bent on living life to the fullest.

I’ve compiled a list of books starring adventurous twenty-somethings, intended for those who’ve just collected their own diplomas or who simply feel a similar affinithy for the genre. There are some cautionary tales among them, yet most are inspiring, some instructive, and a few downright maddening, but all of the titles are utterly charming in their own way.

Girls in The City

Sixty years later, Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything is still an unerringly relatable tale about young women trying to make it out of the typing pool. Big dreams meet reality in a 1950s publishing house, but isn’t all highballs and Manhattan literati. Think Mad Men era mores, literally: Don Draper is seen reading it in Season 2.

Amor Towles’ The Rules of Civility is self-assured and intricately plotted, and it’s somehow the writer’s first novel. Brooklynite Katya becomes Manhattantite Katey, and she’ll have just one year to hone her fast-paced, disarming wit before World War II begins in earnest—but not before she charms nearly everyone she meets. Her society shifts as fast as the boom-and-bust economy, but as the seemingly dashing Tinker muses, “from this vantage point Manhattan was simply so improbable, so wonderful, so obviously full of promise—that you wanted to approach it for the rest of your life without ever quite arriving.”

Lacey Yeager, the protagonist in Steve Martin’s extremely enjoyable, but faulty novel, An Object of Beauty, experiences the sort of rapid career ascension that would make her a case study in Lean In. Lacey doesn’t linger in Sotheby’s mailroom for long, and while she plays leading lady throughout, Martin’s near-fetishistic homage to the art world offers necessary respite from her caustic, opportunist dealings.

To the Continent

Unlike the other female characters on this list, the protagonist of Henry James’1878 Daisy Miller isn’t a college graduate, but she harbors great ambitions in Switzerland and Italy. The 18-year-old American’s disregard for the stifling social mores is not without heartbreak, but the beautiful Daisy gets a taste of European society and dazzling compatriots in this classic novella.

Gore Vidal wrote that Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado “should be subtitled Daisy Miller’s Revenge,” because 21-year-old Sally Jay Gorce isn’t just another naïve American flirting with Paris—she’s out to conquer, champagne cocktail in hand. The aspiring actress is beautiful, witty (she describes her dress as Tyrolean Peasant, Bar Girl, and Dreaded Librarian) and so far ahead of her time (1958!) that it feels like we’re still playing catch up.

Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls was banned shortly after it was published in 1960, and the Irish author’s own parish priest publicly set it on fire. The groundbreaking work cast a critical eye on a repressive, post-war Ireland, launching an entire generation of writers, including Colm Tóibín. The book would ultimately become an eponymous trilogy, but it all began with Kata and Baba, childhood friends who lit out for Dublin. One is romantic, the other independent, and their friendship tumultuous. Love, of course, changes everything, and lives once intertwined become concurrent.

Cliques after College

At Vassar, eight eclectic friends of the class of 1933 simply known as “the group” swore they wouldn’t become updated versions of their parents, but the real world makes such promises difficult. Mary McCathy’s The Group is a delightfully searing look at New England society, passionate (and far from it) endeavors, gender norms, and the vestiges of Ivy League elitism.

Many a J. Courtney Sullivan apologist have sheepishly professed love for Commencement, but there’s no shame in feeling kinship with Celia, Bree, Sally and April as they form unlikely friendships at Smith. The girls themselves greatly—and sometimes painfully—struggle with each other’s post-collegiate choices, but soon realize life without their friendships is a far worse fate.

The College Beau

Charlie Blakeman’s love for Sophie Wilder has not diminished since their falling out a decade prior, but their lives in New York have been separate, barely brushing up against the other. Despite the lacuna, little has changed when the two reconnect; they’re still in the throes of self-discovery— work, love, and family—through literature. Chris Beha’s frighteningly intelligent debut, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, feels like an old fashioned literary novel, with few jarring, contemporary intrusions. To my mind, no other title treats a modern person’s capacity for faith in such a complex, sincere manner.

Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot is a similar, but far more sophisticated, seemingly effortless version of Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder. Can a novel featuring a 1980s love triangle that began at Brown, full of modern trappings like sexual freedom, feminism, prenup and divorce, contend with the great, amorous tales of the nineteenth century? Indeed, everything that Madeline, Leonard, and Mitchell endure swells less with present-day immediacy than timeless import.

Alexis Coe will be wishing her cousin Dana a hearty congraduations later this week. She writes Hammer Time, a new series at the Awl, and Read Local, a column at SF Weekly. Her work has appeared in The Millions, Slate, the Atlantic, and other publications. Follow her.

105 Comments / Post A Comment


Are we apologising for J. Courtney Sullivan? Quick, someone link me to this controversy!

crane your neck

Rona Jaffe, Mary McCarthy, Elaine Dundy, Edna O'Brien, AND Chris Beha?! Great list. We should have a champagne cocktail together someday.

Ragged But Right

@crane your neck Seriously! This list is ridiculously good. The Dud Avocado is a book I give to people more than any other.


@crane your neck: Thanks! In my heart, there's an 'honorable mention' list, and Sister Carrie tops it.

@Ragged But Right: Whenever I'm in a used bookstore, I check to see if there are extra copies of the Dud Avocado! It is far easier to find since the re-release, but I still stockpile. I also spread the gospel of Maile Meloy, as anyone I know who has had a birthday in the last decade can attest. If you're game, start with Half in Love for stories, or Liars and Saints for a novel.


This is great! :)@k


Has anyone started a bookstore called Booklyn yet?? I don't mean to point out your typo, but maybe it was a secret wish

Edit: Oh wait they totally have, I am late to this party


I'd like to throw in English, August. Especially if you know someone sort of adrift post-grad.


It's not set in New York or Paris or any metropole - in fact, it's set in the middle of nowhere ("By the fastest train Madna was eighteen hours away from Delhi, but of course the fastest train simply shrieked its way through it."). So it might make a nice change.


@Lucienne On a similar note, I recommend Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker. Largely set in Montana.


@rosaline My tbr shelf on Goodreads is never going to shrink at this rate!

Angry Panda

@Lucienne Have you watched the movie based on it? I watched it many years ago, as a teenager, and loved it. Don't know how well it stands the test of time, though.


@Lucienne I have the same problem!!! Too many good books to read.


@Angry Panda I haven't, although I want to! I've heard good things about it, and I generally like Rahul Bose. But it's hard to find.


Nice list, and I'm really interested in that Edna O'Brien book...but I beg to differ on one point: The Rules of Civility is TERRIBLE.


@vunder I will defend Rules of Civility to the pain. Why didn't you like it?


@'riel I just found it so artificial. The characters felt like hollow caricatures and the romance conflict thing just felt manufactured as hell. It seemed all surface-level costuming and no person felt like a real person to me.


@vunder That's so odd, one of the very things that resonated with me was the delicacy with which all of the characters were drawn. Tinker and Katy in particular were so subtly and gorgeously done for me.


Also, everyone should read I Capture the Castle, college grad or no. That book is a masterpiece of romance with yourself.


@'riel I was just about to recommend it! An absolutely perfect book.

Emma Peel

@'riel Favorite book of all time. I reread it every few years, and it says something new to me every time. It's odd to realize that Cassandra and Rose now not only *are* younger than me but *seem* younger. And it's so freaking evocative. I've never seen the movie because the whole thing is so gorgeous in my head. I'm still looking for my own version of the department store midsummer scent.

Also, maybe the best first line/last line combo of all time. "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink" to "Only the margin left to write on now. I love you, I love you, I love you." You could just read those two lines and know the coming-of-age story.


@'riel I just added it to my shelf, as well as many others mentioned in the comments. Thanks for all of the suggestions!


This is such a fantastic list! Anything that starts with The Best of Everything is going to be right up my alley. I'm putting everything I haven't read on my summer reading list, starting with The Country Girls.


Is "The Object of Beauty" a "faulty" novel, or merely a "flawed" one? Discuss.


i still click on lists like this but don't think i can in good faith call myself a recent grad anymore


As a die-hard Fitzgerald fan, I first read This Side of Paradise just after graduating college, and it was so perfect, and so of that moment. Plus, it's a first novel and I love first novels, so I mean... it's right in so many ways.

Gordon Bombay

@mlle.gateau Oh I didn't read earlier comments before my own, but I fully endorse this comment.

In the weeks before graduation, I read and reread the following quote more times that I'd like to admit. It was almost a mantra: "'The grass is full of ghosts tonight.' 'The whole campus is alive with them.' They paused by Little and watched the moon rise, to make silver of the slate roof of Dodd and blue the rustling trees. 'You know,' whispered Tom, 'what we feel now is the sense of all the gorgeous youth that has rioted through here in two hundred years.'
And what we leave here is more than class; it's the whole heritage of youth. We're just one generation-- we're breaking all the links that seemed to bind us her to top-booted and high-stocked generations. We've walked arm and arm with Burr and Light-Horse Harry Lee through half these deep-blue nights.' 'That's what they are,' Tom tangented off, 'deep-blue-- a bit of color would spoil them, make them exotic.' Spries, against a sky that's a promise of dawn, and blue light on the slate roofs-- it hurts... rather--' 'Good-by, Aaron Burr,' Amory called toward deserted Nassau Hall, 'you and I knew strange corners of life.”


Love the Country Girls. I must read it again now I'm actually living in Ireland. My graduate books were The Golden Notebook and The Edible Woman.


@rayray Yes yes to The Edible Woman. Also great if you are a post-grad - there is an amazing bit:

‘They all say, Go on to graduate studies, and they give you a bit of money; and so you do, and you think, Now I’m going to find out the real truth. But you don’t find out, exactly, and things get pickier and pickier and more and more stale, and it all collapses in a welter of commas and shredded footnotes, and after a while it’s like anything else: you’ve got stuck in it and you can’t get out, and you wonder how you got there in the first place.

‘...You read and read the material and after you’ve read the twentieth article you can’t make any sense out of it anymore, and then you start thinking about the number of books that are published in any given year, in any given month, in any given week, and that’s just too much. Words,’ he said, looking in my direction finally but with his eyes strangely unfocussed, as though he was really looking at a point several inches beneath my skin, ‘are beginning to lose their meanings.’


@timesnewroman although "and they give you a bit of money" dates it rather


@timesnewroman I tweeted Margaret Atwood saying I was reading it and she tweeted me back being like 'wow that's an old book'. Little does she know I pretty much read things that were published between 1800 and 1970 exclusively.


@rayray !!!!!!!!!!!!!!


@timesnewroman I know. Total twoon (Twitter swoon).


@rayray would love to know if there are other Irish Hairpin ladies. Her.ie just don't cut it for me.


@playgrrrlofthewesternworld There are! I tried to instigate a meetup a while back and we did one, but haven't bothered to do anything since. Decca (of this parish) is also Irish but is in the UK I believe.

space opera

This is sort of a weird choice, but I was reading Lev Grossman's The Magicians when I graduated from my own small, strange, Hudson-Valley-located (though not magical, in the traditional sense) college. It has a male protagonist, but Grossman really nails the feeling of being set adrift in the world after living for several years in what amounts to a protected, idealistic summer camp where everyone walks around feeling smart and self-assured. Graduating from college was a tougher blow than I could have imagined, even though I had a solid plan, and this book really resonated with me at the time (and still). Being a huge fantasy nerd with a penchant for unlikable narrators helped, I'm sure. (Also, if absolutely every one of my real life acquaintances didn't know who I was on here, I'm sure this is the final straw).


@space opera No way! There are at least two of us.(and I am beyond obsessed with The Magicians. Did you know there is a sequel?)



I'm also, incidentally, 6 years out of college, but MAN. Read that this spring and devoured it, loved it, quoted it lots.


@Hammitt I just finished it last week, and SALLY JAY GORCE BE STILL MY HEART


I wasn't that wowed by The Marriage Plot but can't really remember why... if someone can cleverly articulate why I will like your comment and post "yes!!" underneath it.


@timesnewroman I was coming here to comment the same thing. I didn't like it because the two male characters were fleshed out and well characterized, but Madeline was just there. She was the main character but I felt like I barely knew her.


@Slutface Agreed. I honestly couldn't stand that book. But I'm that way with all of his stuff - I feel like I should like it, but it always falls flat for me.


The presence of The Marriage Plot gave me pause about the entire rest of this list, actually. [Development of male characters vs. Madeline, clueless take on lit crit and lit theory that sends us all back down the drainhole of 80s culture wars in a pointless strawman argument way, etc.).

but maybe i will hold off judgment and take it as inspiration to go read The Dud Avocado instead...


@packedsuitcase The only reason I read it was because of the rumor he based it on the real life love triangle between him, David Foster Wallace and Mary Karr. If that's true, it came off as a f*ck you to Karr or whoever the woman was they fought over.


@Slutface Oh, damn. Yeah.

Is this a safe place to admit I haven't read any DFW?


Mitchell had a raging case of Nice Guy Syndrome. Couldn't tell if that was intentional or not.


@timesnewroman Yes! Oh, you married that loser, depressed guy instead of intelligent me, well you got what you deserved!


@slutface While I was reading it, I somehow managed to NOT REALIZE that Leonard "was" DFW and then in retrospect it seemed like the most obvious thing ever (the bandannas! the sweating!)

I had... mixed feelings about The Marriage Plot. I didn't dislike it (and would even go so far as to say that I mostly enjoyed reading it -- the "mostly" comes from my thinning patience for Mitchell's Great Spiritual Quest), but feel like I have read so many smart, thoughtful criticisms of it that I know I enjoyed in spite of it's failings and not because of it's successes.

honey cowl

@timesnewroman I agree with all these things. I was sorely disappointed by ol' Jeffrey on this one. You make us wait this long and that's what you come up with?!


So Robert Graves wrote "Goodbye to All That". Which got to be fairly famous, if you're interested in the young men of World War I and their intense disillusionment ('if any ask us why they died / tell them that their fathers lied,' and all that). And then his own father, Alfred Percival Graves, who was himself a poet, wrote "A Return to All That," as his own riposte-y memoir. And your title made me think of all this. Thanks, and a great list, too.


I JUST finished reading The Best of Everything and I totally loved it, though fair warning: it's not so much about career gals as it is gals who have jobs. Even the ones who like working are all, "Hells YES I'll quit my job to be your wife! I'll quit right now!"

But you guys, CAN WE TALK ABOUT DAVID WILDER SAVAGE. Because in my head, he's pretty hot.


The Dud Avocado is so good that I think it predisposes people to assume that Dundy was some kind of Harper Lee-like character with only one brilliant book in her and that anything else would be a disappointment, but I took the risk and read The Old Man and Me and it is brilliant too. very brutal. I haven't read her Elvis bio or her autobiography yet except for an excerpt that's online somewhere, but I bet they are amazing.

Can a novel featuring a 1980s love triangle that began at Brown, full of modern trappings like sexual freedom, feminism, prenup and divorce, contend with the great, amorous tales of the nineteenth century?

Sure can! But not this one!

honey cowl

@queenofbithynia HAH YES!


Sorry to any Calgary 'Pinners, but I just put all of these on hold. READ ALL THE BOOKS


I'm not sure why I never got around to reading Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster when I was younger, but I just finished it last month. It's just a lovely book, maybe especially for new grads.


@Bittersweet As an adult, this is obviously one of my favorite genres, but as a little girl, I read any book featuring orphans with benefactors -- the whole thing struck me as wildly mysterious and glamorous -- and yet, I've never read Daddy Long Legs. Added to my shelf. Thanks!


welcome to my new reading list. thank you!
Also, that introductory paragraph nearly made me cry. OUR LIVES, YOU GUYS!

Gordon Bombay

To me, nothing better described the agony and the ecstasy of being a recent post grad quite like This Side of Paradise.


I'd add Shelia Levine is Dead & Living In New York to the list, although it's rather bleak in its portrayal of young adulthood.

I will personally not apologize for it, but I'd also add Melissa Bank's The Girls' Guide to Hunting & Fishing and The Wonder Spot (though they are more or less the same novel). I will apologize for recommending the Sarah Michelle Gellar/Alec Baldwin movie based on those novels - but it's good background noise for folding laundry, etc.


just before I saw the paycheck 4 $9209, I didnt believe that my cousin could realey earning money part time at their computer.. there friends cousin has done this less than sixteen months and as of now paid for the morgage on there apartment and got a brand new Jaguar E-type. go to, Bow6.com


As an Irish girl who grew up in rural Ireland in a conservative Catholic household (yes this is in the 1990s, not the 60s) - Edna O'Brien's book speaks to me on so many levels, and the story transcends the Irish context, its truly a modern classic and I think Hairpinners would adore it.


I am going to try to read ALL OF THESE and I can't wait. Yay

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