Rainbow Rowell’s brilliant Eleanor & Park revives the exquisite agony of first love—both the hand-holding, googly-eyed kind, and the strapping-on-record-store-headphones, musical-awakening kind. For many a late-blooming teen (myself included), love affairs with albums and artists started long before dating did. It’s no coincidence that some of my favorite coming-of-age novels are also books that send you straight to your iPod, your turntables, or the hand-decorated mix tape you’ve been holding onto for the past decade or two. Here are a few of the best, and some songs to get you started on making your reading-list playlist:
Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell. Two misfit teens meet on a school bus, and it’s dislike at first sight. But slowly the divide between them is bridged, with comic books, mix tapes, and, eventually, the sexiest hand-holding scene ever seen in fiction. Read with a box of Kleenex and a pair of ear buds.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky. Thousands of misunderstood teens came of age with Charlie, the kind of indelible, heart-tugging protagonist who’d put his favorite song on a mix tape twice. Charlie tells the story of his rough and transcendent freshman year, in the early 1990s outside of Pittsburgh, via letters to an unnamed friend, rife with references to the incandescent songs that make him feel “infinite.”
Hairstyles of the Damned, by Joe Meno. This book celebrates the joy of musical self-discovery through teen protag Brian Oswald’s whiplash-inducing attempts to define himself through what he listens to—from the punk mixes his best friend (and crush) Gretchen makes to his vinyl geek friend Rod’s jazz records. Meno captures the way that a smart, confused teen dealing with the terrors of crushes, fights, and family strife will look to music to feel and say the things he can’t.
High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby. Hornby’s hilarious, allusion-heavy writing is at its hyperliterate best in this finally-coming-of-age story of a London record store owner who reexamines the entwined histories of his love lives—both with inevitably disappointed women and, more importantly, with music. Perhaps the best writing out there on the art of the mix tape.
Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami. Murakami is better known for scoring his books with jazz, but Norwegian Wood, taking its title from the most wistful of Beatles songs, also thrums with bossa nova and pop. This slim story follows its drifting protagonist’s recollections of both his first and second loves, and the lasting tragedy of his best friend’s suicide at 17.
What’s your favorite mix-tape book?