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7 Novels Featuring Identity Crises to Save for a Restless Day

January 5 2023
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Feeling adrift, alienated, suddenly out of place, or restless? We all suffer from our own mini (or not-so-mini) identity crises from time to time. Get through this one—or prepare for your next one—by checking out these seven irresistible books that get that feeling of a displaced, fractured, or reinvented self just right. Whether tackling questions of exile and fresh starts or uncanny returns and the downward spirals that result from revisiting the past, each of these novels digs deep into the psychological turmoil, absurdism, and euphoria of questioning who you are, how you got there, and what you could become.

The Blue Window
by Suzanne Berne

Psychotherapist Lorna has long buried dark secrets from her childhood as she’s built her career and raised her creative but misunderstood son, Adam. After an incident at college pushes Adam to withdraw into himself more than ever, Lorna decides to take him on a road trip to Vermont, eager to reconnect with him as well as her estranged mother, Marika, who lives there. Together Marika, Lorna, and Adam must discover what it means to care for each other, even when you resist being cared for or understood yourself.

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The Blue Window
Suzanne Berne

From the Orange Prize–winning author of A Crime in the Neighborhood comes a riveting novel about a therapist whose attempts to unlock the most difficult cases of her life—those of her son, and of her mother—reveal that the bigger the secret you’re concealing, the more it conceals you.

Secrets abound in Lorna’s family. Her mother Marika, who survived the Nazi occupation of Holland, abandoned the family when Lorna and her brother Wade were just seven and twelve years old. The reason she left, and her whereabouts afterward, were shrouded in mystery. As is a darker secret Marika has repressed for nearly seventy years.

Now that Lorna, a respected psychotherapist, has a child of her own, she’s determined to make Marika a part of their lives. But it’s been a struggle for nearly two decades. Lorna’s son Adam is creative, passionate, and uncomfortable in his own skin. Three weeks before the story opens, he abruptly returns home from college after an incident that he refuses to discuss. And he refuses to be called by his name. He refers to himself as “A” for “anti-matter” and insists that Lorna do the same.

The more Lorna tries to get Adam to talk, the more he withdraws. So, when she gets the call that Marika has had a fall and is incapacitated, she sees an opportunity to bond with Adam on the long drive north to Vermont, and to reconnect with her mother by nursing her back to health.

But how do you care for people you can’t understand, and who don’t want to be understood? As Lorna confronts this question, she must face secrets of her own, which she has tried to ignore by spending her life analyzing other people.

A deft and compelling exploration of family dynamics infused with suspense, Blue Window shows what happens to people who hide from themselves—and the act of imagination it takes to find them.

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The Late Hector Kipling
by David Thewlis

Absurd and hysterically surreal, THE LATE HECTOR KIPLING unspools one man’s violent midlife crisis. Hector Kipling is a famous artist, but when his life falls apart at age forty-three, he has nowhere to turn. His best friend, Lenny Snook, is more famous than he is; his girlfriend is miles away; his irresponsible therapist is making a fool of him; and a young poet obsessed with S&M is becoming a bit too tempting. Lurking in the background is a vindictive stalker whom Hector begins to pursue alike—and Hector may become just desperate enough to do something terrible to him.

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The Late Hector Kipling
David Thewlis

At turns warm, witty, and joyfully absurd, David Thewlis’s wicked comedy marks the debut of a savagely funny and observant literary talent.

Hector Kipling is a famous artist. But Hector is not as famous as his best friend, Lenny Snook. And as they are standing in the Tate Gallery one afternoon, Hector’s life begins to unravel. For a painter, this existential crisis is the place from which great art is born. If the painter happens to be a forty-three-year-old man with a girlfriend away from home, it is the recipe for disaster.

Soon it’s all Hector can do to keep it together—between his therapist who shows up drunk at a party and introduces herself to his parents, an irresistible young female poet with a terrifying taste for S&M, and a deranged stalker with an oil-and-canvas-inspired vendetta, just trying to cope is enough to make a man cry.

As the events in his life threaten to drive him toward full-blown dementia, Hector finds himself in a bizarre and murderous pursuit of a man threatening to kill him in return, spiraling into a hysterically surreal Hitchcock-like thriller—the story of how a man can become desperate enough to shoot his way out of a midlife crisis.

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Ten Girls to Watch
by Charity Shumway

Dawn West is a young woman trying to make it in New York City. Given that she currently has an ex-boyfriend she can’t shake, a roommate who ignores the rent, and a writing career that won’t take off, Dawn is ecstatic to land a job tracking down past winners of Charm magazine’s “Ten Girls to Watch.” But as Dawn interviews these women—now pilots, politicians, and opera singers—she discovers success may not always come the way we think, and that friendships can arise unexpectedly. TEN GIRLS TO WATCH is a funny and charming debut about young adulthood and role models, and it will have you thinking about the women you look up to in your own life.

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Ten Girls to Watch
Charity Shumway

A radiant debut novel about stumbling through the early years of adulthoodand a love letter to the role models who light the way.

Like so many other recent graduates, Dawn West is trying to make her way in New York City. She’s got an ex-boyfriend she can’t quite stop seeing, a roommate who views rent checks and basic hygiene as optional, and a writing career that’s gotten as far as penning an online lawn care advice column.

So when Dawn lands a job tracking down the past winners of Charm magazine’s “Ten Girls to Watch” contest, she’s thrilled. After all, she’s being paid to interview hundreds of fascinating women: once outstanding college students, they have gone on to become mayors, opera singers, and air force pilots. As Dawn gets to know their life stories, she’ll discover that success, love, and friendship can be found in the most unexpected of places. Most importantly, she’ll learn that while those who came before us can be role models, ultimately, we each have to create our own happy ending.

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The Scent of Pine
by Lara Vapnyar

At thirty-eight, Lena is facing a midlife crisis. After growing up in the Soviet Union, she feels alienated in America; her career is on perpetual hold; and her marriage is dissolving. When she connects with a failed artist, Ben, who is having his own crisis, the two make the impulsive decision to go on a weekend getaway to Maine. On the trip, Lena describes the summer she spent as a Soviet camp counselor, when she had her own sexual awakening. Soon, they discover not only the importance of the past, but also of the present time they have together.

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The Scent of Pine
Lara Vapnyar

“A compelling tale of cultural displacement and yearning” (The Boston Globe), from award-winning author Lara Vapnyar: a “sly and seductive” (The New York Times Book Review) new novel about sexual awakening and the relentless search for love.

Though only thirty-eight, Lena finds herself in the grips of a midlife crisis. She feels lost in her adoptive country, her career is at a dead end, and her marriage has spiraled into apathy and distrust—it seems impossible she will ever find happiness again. But then she strikes up a precarious friendship with Ben, a failed artist turned reluctant academic, who is just as lost as she is.

They soon surprise themselves by embarking on an impulsive weekend adventure, uncharacteristically leaving their responsibilities behind. On the way to Ben’s remote cabin in Maine, Lena begins to talk, for the first time in her life, about the tumultuous summer she spent as a counselor in a Soviet children’s camp twenty years earlier, when she was just discovering romance and her own sexuality. As Lena opens up to Ben about secrets she has long kept hidden, they begin to discover together not only the striking truths buried in her puzzling past, but also more immediate, passionate ones about the urgency of this short, stolen time they have together.

“Enchanting…vivid and rich” (The New York Times), filled with Lara Vapnyar’s characteristic empathy, deadpan humor, and striking honesty, The Scent of Pine weaves themes of ambition, loneliness, longing, and the fickle nature of desire into a “book of elegant writing and propulsive storytelling” (Chicago Tribune).

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Double Feature
by Owen King

Owen King’s debut novel is a kaleidoscopic look at ambition, resentment, art, and the struggles of letting go, set in the world of New York indie filmmaking. Sam Dolan has always lived in the shadow of his boisterous (and embarrassing) father, B-movie actor Booth Dolan. Now embarking on his own film career, Sam must figure out how to deal with decades of baggage from his father and his idealized mother all while engaging with an eclectic group of people who keep trickling in and out of his life.

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Double Feature
Owen King

“An ambitious and warmhearted first novel” (Entertainment Weekly) from Owen King—the epic tale of a young man coming to terms with his life in the aftermath of the spectacularly bizarre failure of his first film.

SAM DOLAN is a young man coming to terms with his life in the process and aftermath of making his first film. He has a difficult relationship with his father, B-movie actor Booth Dolan—a boisterous, opinionated, lying lothario whose screen legacy falls somewhere between cult hero and pathetic. Allie, Sam’s dearly departed mother, was a woman whose only fault, in Sam’s eyes, was her eternal affection for his father. Also included in the cast of indelible characters: a precocious, frequently violent half-sister; a conspiracy-theorist second wife; an Internet-famous roommate; a contractor who can’t stop expanding his house; a happy-go-lucky college girlfriend and her husband, a retired Yankees catcher; the morose producer of a true-crime show; and a slouching indie-film legend. Not to mention a tragic sex monster.

Unraveling the tumultuous, decades-spanning story of the Dolan family’s friends, lovers, and adversaries, Double Feature is about letting go of everything—regret, resentment, dignity, moving pictures, the dead—and taking it again from the top. Against the backdrop of indie filmmaking, college campus life, contemporary Brooklyn, and upstate New York, Owen King’s epic debut novel combines propulsive storytelling with mordant wit and brims with a deep understanding of the trials of ambition and art, of relationships and life, and of our attempts to survive it all.

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Pomegranate
by Helen Elaine Lee

In POMEGRANATE, acclaimed author Helen Elaine Lee tells the lyrical and powerful story of a queer Black woman determined to stay clean. Ranita has spent the last four years in the Oak Hills Correctional Center serving time for opiate possession. While there, she attended recovery meetings, met her partner Maxine, and began to imagine what life could be like without addiction. Now, on the brink of her release, Ranita must leave Maxine behind and face a world that threatens to pull her back under, while staying determined to keep sober and regain custody of her children.

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Pomegranate
Helen Elaine Lee

“A remarkable feat of literary conjuration.” —Jennifer Haigh, nationally bestselling author of Mercy Street

The acclaimed author of The Serpent’s Gift returns with this gripping and powerful novel of healing, redemption, and love, following a queer Black woman who works to stay clean, pull her life together, and heal after being released from prison.

Ranita Atwater is “getting short.”

She is almost done with her four-year sentence for opiate possession at Oak Hills Correctional Center. With three years of sobriety, she is determined to stay clean and regain custody of her two children.

My name is Ranita, and I’m an addict, she has said again and again at recovery meetings. But who else is she? Who might she choose to become? As she claims the story housed within her pomegranate-like heart, she is determined to confront the weight of the past and discover what might lie beyond mere survival.

Ranita is regaining her freedom, but she’s leaving behind her lover Maxine, who has inspired her to imagine herself and the world differently. Now she must steer clear of the temptations that have pulled her down, while atoning for her missteps and facing old wounds. With a fierce, smart, and sometimes funny voice, Ranita reveals how rocky and winding the path to wellness is for a Black woman, even as she draws on family, memory, faith, and love in order to choose life.

Perfect for fans of Jesmyn Ward and Yaa Gyasi, Pomegranate is a complex portrayal of queer Black womanhood and marginalization in America: a story of loss, healing, redemption, and strength. In lyrical and precise prose, Helen Elaine Lee paints a humane and unflinching portrait of the devastating effects of incarceration and addiction, and of one woman’s determination to tell her story.

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The Veins of the Ocean
by Patricia Engel

Reina Castillo is devastated when her brother is sentenced to death for a terrible crime. Blaming herself for his downfall, Reina is desperate to start over in a place outside of their tight-knit community, somewhere no one knows her name. Arriving in the Florida Keys, Reina meets Nesto Cadena, an exiled Cuban awaiting the arrival of his children. With his help, Reina begins to understand the power of the ocean and the role it played in her family’s life. THE VEINS OF THE OCEAN is an immersive story about states of exile by critically acclaimed author Patricia Engel.

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The Veins of the Ocean
Patricia Engel

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Photo credit: iStock / Jelena990

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