Many novels telescope their stories into a few years, a few days, or even a few hours. But other books take the protagonists from childhood well into adulthood, and it can be quite compelling.
Following characters from kid to post-kid can help us see what makes them “tick.” How were their personalities shaped by parents, siblings, and other people they encountered when babies, toddlers, tykes, and teens? How did factors such as household income, school, first love, etc., turn them into adults who were happy or sad, optimistic or pessimistic, nice or nasty, leaders or followers, and so on? Meanwhile, we compare our own remembered childhoods with the characters’ fictional upbringings.
Also, we’re hopefully impressed with an author’s skill in depicting the formative years — a skill that includes getting inside the head of a kid and then inside the head of that kid as a grown-up, with all the dialogue differences and other nuances necessary to show those respective stages of life.
Lots of novels chronicle the child-to-adult transition in a chronological way, but there are of course many books that look at a protagonist’s youthful years in flashbacks. Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye is among countless examples of the latter.
W. Somerset Maugham’s riveting Of Human Bondage devotes many pages to showing the orphaned Philip Carey as a kid and teen: getting raised by his narrow-minded/religious uncle and meek aunt, living a sheltered life that includes little contact with girls, dealing with ridicule for having a clubfoot, etc. Philip is a kind person, but those trying formative years also make him an insecure person with low self-esteem — and thus have a major impact on how he behaves as an adult. Most notably, he falls for a shallow woman totally wrong for him, and behaves embarrassingly.
Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield is also semi-autobiographical (note how CD’s initials are reversed to DC) as the protagonist goes from boy to man. David’s difficult upbringing is undoubtedly a big reason why he makes some questionable life choices as he grows older, but, as is often the case with Dickens novels, things tend to work out well in the end (at least for some characters).
Charlotte Bronte’s Villette opens with protagonist Lucy Snowe as a girl, during an extended stay at her godmother’s home. The scenes there are crucial in giving readers insight into Lucy’s personality — she’s a (mostly) self-reliant loner — and we meet several people she’ll encounter again as an adult.
There are also kid-to-adult novels starring siblings, with much of the drama created by those characters being mismatched. For instance, George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss features the appealing Maggie and her unappealing brother Tom, who often treats Maggie badly when they’re kids and when they’re adults in a 19th-century England that’s depressingly patriarchal. Their tragic “reconciliation” is made even more intense by how we’ve known the siblings since their childhood.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland starts with the boyhood years of brothers who are timid (Subhash) and daring (Udayan). We figure those traits will remain when both grow up, but are still fascinated with how that manifests itself in later chapters. Udayan becomes a revolutionary, and Subhash picks up the pieces of Udayan’s life.
Where a kid resides also has a major impact on her or his development. In Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Lacuna, Harrison spends part of his childhood with his mother in Mexico. That leads to eventual employment with Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and the exiled Leon Trotsky (though Harrison is not particularly political) and then to getting hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Harrison’s life is ruined — or is it?
Among the many other novels with memorable kid-to-adult segues are Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (in the persons of Celie and Nettie), Toni Morrison’s Sula (Sula and Nel), Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (Clyde), Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex (gender-confused kid who finds some clarity over the years), and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (from Afghanistan to the U.S. back to Afghanistan back to the U.S.).
Of course, the kid-to-adult transition can play out over several novels, not just one. A memorable example of that is L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and its many sequels that take Anne from preadolescence to teenhood to young adulthood to middle age.
What are your favorite novels in which the protagonist ages from child to grown-up?
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I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.