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Coming of age novels are often relegated to the tween/teen set, and many are classified as young adult fiction. Still, many of my favorite novels are coming of age novels. Maybe it’s because of the extended young adulthood of my generation or perhaps it’s the realization that coming of age isn’t typically a one-time occurrence. Revelation and recognition occur throughout our lifetimes at the most unexpected and, sometimes, inopportune moments. I’m drawn to young adult fiction for this reason, but many adult novels deal with these universal themes, too. Reading a book from the perspective of a young narrator can help you remember your childhood self with a lot more compassion, humor, and the benefit of hindsight.
I recently finished a lovely coming of age novel by Laura Moriarty. The Center of Everything is narrated by Evelyn Bucknow, a precocious 12 year old at the beginning of the novel. Evelyn lives in the center of the United States, but also resides in the center of two important forces in her life. Evelyn’s mother, Tina, is someone who probably loves too freely and struggles with the results of bad choices. Eileen, Evelyn’s grandmother, is a devout evangelical Christian who deeply loves Evelyn but worries over her upbringing. Throughout the novel Evelyn struggles to find her own world view somewhere between these two poles.
Set in the 1980’s, The Center of Everything takes the reader back to Cold War era nuclear bomb drills, the rise and fall of Ronald Reagan, the Iran Contra Hearings, and the seeds of the Culture Wars that remain today. For those whose own coming of age occurred in the 1980s, this novel will evoke nostalgia, but the time period isn’t really the point. This could be any coming-of-age novel in which the protagonist has to grapple with seemingly opposing world views and attempt to reconcile dissonant ideas.
Evelyn’s journey from age 12 at the beginning of the novel to age 17 by the ending involves the typical adolescent experiences like mean girls and first love. But, she also encounters broader issues—mostly as presented by her grandmother and her mother. While she tries on different roles, she maintains her intellectual integrity, questioning each position and wondering about conflicting thoughts. In this passage, she’s deconstructing the trial of Oliver North:
It gets confusing, because that’s why he hates the Communists in the first place. Because they lie and cheat. But if America is really blessed, then it’s different for us. I’m sure God loves people in Nicaragua, almost as much as he loves us. But, it would be a bad thing if the Communists came to Texas, so maybe some of the Nicaraguans have to die to keep that from happening. But I probably wouldn’t think that way if I lived in Nicaragua. (181)
There are three “buts” in this short passage. Morarity’s writing style echoes the confusion so many of us experience when trying to understand those grey areas in life. Evelyn is a wonderful character—a poor, smart girl growing up in an insular, small town in Kansas. If you can relate to any part of this description, you will love The Center of Everything.
Three words that describe this book: humorous, thoughtful, nostalgic