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Ask a Book Critic: Books for a quarterlife crisis

Our critic recommends books to suit your very specific mood.

Ask a Book Critic Amanda Northrop/Vox
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Welcome to the latest installment of Vox’s Ask a Book Critic, in which I, Vox book critic Constance Grady, provide book recommendations to suit your very specific mood: either how you’re feeling right now or how you’d like to be feeling instead.

If you prefer your recommendations in audio form, you can listen to Ask a Book Critic, part of Vox Quick Hits. Hear a new episode of Ask a Book Critic — always under 10 minutes long — every two weeks wherever you listen to podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.

Now let’s get started.

As a kid, I read at least a book a week. However, I haven’t been able to sit still long enough to read a single page in yeaaars, until I started My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which you suggested in your last Ask a Book Critic.

Current mood: 24 years old, some ADHD, starting a new job/chapter while quarantined with her family, always feeling like a waste of potential, want to read a captivating book that lifts me up maybe but more importantly teaches me something (art, philo, history, econ, any type of humanities and not engineering knowledge), not cheesy motivational, not too sci-fi, not too dry.

If you liked My Year of Rest and Relaxation, I think Nell Zink might be right up your alley. She writes very weird, very zippy books that always make me feel like she’s rearranging my head. Start with Nicotine, which is about a recent college grad moving into a group house of smoker’s rights activists. It is very un-cheesy and un-dry, and it has some of that salt-and-vinegar aggression that animates Rest and Relaxation, but there’s a little more warmth and empathy in there. Plus you can learn about the weirdness of Nell Zink, which is a lesson in and of itself!

Life has felt a little lost the last few years. I feel like a lot of dreams I had died, and I feel like I haven’t really lived yet. I’m also having a truly terrifying crisis about what to do with my life and what degree and career to pursue. So something to read while I’m having my little premature midlife crisis would be nice.

A quarterlife crisis is a whole mood.

The classic option here is Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which you may recall because it was the basis for the Reese Witherspoon movie of the same name. If not: After the death of her mother, Strayed spirals downward until she decides to hike the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail. There is lots of ruminating over past mistakes and trying to figure out where to evolve next.

I would also recommend Emma Rathbone’s Losing It, about a 26-year-old woman who has become obsessed with losing her virginity. What’s interesting about this one is that the protagonist devoted her adolescence to training to become an elite swimmer, and then never quite became elite. Now she’s searching for something else to fill the swimming-shaped hole in her life, and she’s convinced herself that sex is the thing that’s going to do it.

Finally, while I have not read it myself, I have heard excellent things about Florence in Ecstasy by Jessie Chaffee. It’s about a 28-year-old woman struggling with an eating disorder who loses her job, moves to Florence, and becomes obsessed with the ecstatic self-abnegation of medieval female saints.

I love a good plot twist. Bonus if the plot twist isn’t a murder or crime.

I’m going to shout out one of the Vox Book Club picks here: Trust Exercise by Susan Choi has a series of excellent plot twists. At the outset it appears to be a very sweet high school romance between two misfits at a performing arts high school in the 1980s, but then the point of view keeps changing and the book turns into something much weirder and darker.

I’d like to read a book about chosen family. Maybe featuring (lifelong, female) friendships being superior to, and outlasting, romantic relationships and other relationships. Bonus if they’re childhood friends.

Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble is a really lovely portrait of a group of four friends who form a string quartet, and a portrait of their career and relationship over 16 years. It’s very sweet and rich and thoughtful.

I’ve been reading fiction involving complicated mother-daughter relationships and finding them very cathartic. Do you have any recs?

Try Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. It’s about a little girl who grows up at an alligator wrestling farm in Florida, where her now-dead mother used to be the star attraction. A lot of dark and compelling magical realist stuff happens over the course of the novel, but thematically it’s about the idea of “mothers burning inside the risen suns of their children.”

Another good pick for you might be Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. I didn’t hugely care for the Hulu show based on that book (another Reese Witherspoon adaptation finding its way into this column!). But the novel, which deals with a bohemian artist single mother becoming a maid for a Type A suburban family, while both of their daughters palpably wish to switch moms, is a very tender and fraught look at mothers and daughters and the ways in which they hurt each other.

My attention span is in the gutter lately but I still like reading books, especially artsy weird books told in tiny chunks. I’m thinking maybe of that Vonnegut book that he supposedly wrote on scraps of paper and compiled. Was that Breakfast of Champions?

The new Patricia Lockwood novel No One Is Talking About This has your name all over it — it’s about the way the internet is affecting our brains, and it is arty, weird, and fragmented. (If you also want that Vonnegut, I believe the one you’re thinking of is Hocus Pocus.)

I like cynical books told in the first person, about crime or mundane moody things. Do you have any recommendations?

Try Tana French’s Dublin Murders series. There are six books, each narrated in the first person by a different detective, all with varying degrees of cynicism. Start with In The Woods.

If you’d like me to recommend a book for you, email me at with the subject line “Ask a Book Critic.” The more specific your mood, the better!