For most people, your twenties is the decade in which you learn how to be an adult: you have your first serious relationships, take your first career steps and learn your first difficult lessons about yourself and the world. Naturally, all of this is reflected in great literature.
Bridget Jones' Diary by Helen Fielding (1996)
Ultimately, Bridget Jones' Diary is the perfect antidote to that feeling we all get at some point in our life, especially early on: that we're not quite good enough. As Helen Fielding wrote of the book's success in 2013, "I suspected that what Bridget had unwittingly tapped into was the gap between how people feel they are expected to be on the outside and how they actually feel inside." It's also absolutely hilarious.
The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho (1988)
"Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own." So says Coelho in The Alchemist. And there is something alchemical about his writing, like the warm hand of a wise uncle, or life guru, resting tenderly on your shoulder. He's written many books, to mostly glowing critical acclaim, but The Alchemist has to be his best. It is, ultimately, about listening to your heart, following your dreams and grabbing opportunities as they whiz past.
It follows a Spanish shepherd boy who leaves home for Egypt in search of buried treasure. Along the way he encounters a string of colourful characters, and no shortage of roadblocks. But he soon discovers that, as well as the real treasure in the desert, there as another he must find – the one inside his soul. All in, it is a book about what it takes for some to conquer their fears and chase their dreams, and why others buckle under the crushing weight of human existence to just... exist.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (2000)
We all wish, or have wished, for our own superhero transformation. In The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, the Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction in 2001, we have a chance to dream. It follows a young artist called Josef Kavalier and his Brooklyn-born cousin Sammy Clay in the years following Kavalier's escape from Nazi-ruled Poland in the 1930s. Kavalier joins Clay in New York during the Golden Age of comic books, where they work together at a magazine. Together they invent a superhero called The Escapist, "whose power would be that of impossible and perpetual escape."
It is a towering Everest of a novel about ingenuity and heartbreak, the search for identity, the human need to escape (family expectations, social constraints, oppression, etc.), loves lost and found, and the growing up we all do in our 20s and early 30s, way after society calls us 'adults'.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (2015)
This tender portrayal of a friendship group of college graduates who coalesce around one of their friends, haunted by the nightmare of his childhood. Yanagihara delicately weaves each young man's life throughout her text with the lightest touch, such that the reader will fall in love not with any one character but with their selfless motivation to support each other in times of need. A Little Life is at once a jarring examination on the trauma of childhood abuse and a heart-lifting ode to the power and possibilities of adult male friendship.
In the hands of a less talented writer, the men's intense loyalty for each other might seem annoyingly unrealistic (are men really that selfless?), but Yanagihara pulls it off with a subversive brilliance that few writers have in their arsenal. The New Yorker breathlessly described it as a novel that will "drive you mad, consume you and take over your life", while the Guardian called it called it "the perfect chronicle of our age of anxiety, providing all its attendant dramas... as well as its solaces."
Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth (2014)
Described by Caitlin Moran as "Withnail with girls", this is about two early 30-something friends who love nothing more than a 3am bender – a tale of half-remembered parties, fallouts with drug dealers and fuzzy-mouthed hangovers. But then one decides to get married, forcing the jarring question: are your 30s time to rein in the partying, or can it carry on until the triumphant (or bitter) end?
On its publication, Animals was praised to the literary rafters for its bold, unflinching portrayal of female friendship and all the nuances contained therein. But it also asks questions about societal expectations of women, particularly: why are women's lives, and choices, scrutinised in a way that men's seldom are? "I didn’t feel I was getting a chance to read stories about women that went against the grain," Unsworth said in 2019. "There was no recreational joy allowed with drugs or intoxication or in sex. Women who were having a lot of sex were always troubled. Someone in their family had to be dying or have a hole in their heart."