I read Gayle Forman's Just One Day very early on this year, and it's stayed with me for all of these months. On a regular basis, I see or read or hear something that reminds me of it, and that only serves to make me A) want to re-read it, and B) want to read the sequel. (OH MY GOD, ESPECIALLY B! BUT ALSO A.)
It's a coming-of-age story, yes, but it's a coming-of-age story that plays with how we try on and try out different roles and personas and faces—as the love interest is an actor, that part of the story resonates that much more—and it's a story about exploration, about testing boundaries, about taking chances, about risk, about the power of attraction, of connection, of love. It's a story about growing out of friendships, and about growing out of ourselves, and it's about actively growing—choosing to change—into a new self.
It's so, so lovely, and if you're a fan of contemporaries and you HAVEN'T read it yet, I do hope that you will. It's THAT GOOD.
But, enough of ME. Here's Gayle:
There are many reasons I love travel, but the reason I love it most is the reason I hate it most: It pushes me out of my comfort zone, and as everyone knows, that can be a, well, uncomfortable (and embarrassing and maddening and frightening) place to be. It’s also the place where growth happens, which is probably why travel tends to be so transformative.
Travel is not the only road to transformation. It’s just a really efficient (not to mention fun) one because it deep-ends you way out of your comfort zone (or at least it does the way I do it). I love all manner of stories and novels that thrust readers far from home (real or metaphoric) watch them flounder and then allow them to grow. Here are six of my Grow-Your-Comfort-Zone novels.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
There is so much to love in Alexie’s heartbreakingly funny novel about Junior, a misfit squared. As if it’s not enough to be born poor, Indian, and living on the Rez, Junior also suffers from a series of congenital health issues. On top of that, he’s smart. Really smart. So smart that he winds up transferring from the reservation school to a rich school, where he and the school mascot are the only Indians. What could be a tale of Poor Indian Getting Picked On By Whitey turns out to be much more nuanced story, with Junior developing deep relationships with his new friends at his school, and seeing relationships on the reservation challenged, and as a result, not fitting in quite anywhere. He gains things, and loses things along the way, important things—this book will break your fucking heart—but in the end he grows. And so will your heart.
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë
Poor Jane never really has a comfort zone. An orphan living with her aunt’s family, she’s an outcast there. Then she’s an outcast among outcasts at Lowood School. It’s not until she comes to imposing Thornfield Hall and meets the intimidating Mr. Rochester that she begins to find some semblance of home. After finally, she thinks, creating a family of her own, she learns Mr. Rochester’s terrible secret (at the altar, no less). And then she’s cast out of the only home she’s ever known. Le sigh. Jane’s life is a series of sink or swims. But our Jane, she always swims. And she always grows stronger. Also, hello. Rochester. Original book boyfriend.
The Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri
As the title suggests, everyone in Jhumpa Lahiri's debut collection of stories is out of their element. In the title story, Indian Americans on holiday back in India spend a day out with a tour guide, a native Indian, himself thrown out of his comfort zone by what he sees as his sudden intimacy with the glamorous Americanized woman in his backseat, herself completely out of her element in her putative homeland. Other stories show the delicate dance between two worlds (one of them, or both of them, often bewildering) of immigrant Indians living in the US. Lahiri’s stories are less about grand transformation than confusion, misunderstanding, longing, and cracks in the heart. But there is something universal in these feelings—of being unmoored, of knowing where you are, but not where you fit—that these stories capture perfectly.
Saving Francesca, by Melina Marchetta
If anyone needs booting out of her comfort zone, it’s 16-year-old Francesca Spinnelli. She’s being suffocated it, by the casual cruelty of girls who have made her squash her authentic self. When Francesca winds up at Saint Sebastian’s, an all-boys school just gone co-ed, the timing wouldn’t seem ideal—her mother has just fallen into a major depression. Yet being in the school, among mostly boys, turns out to be just the shakeup Francesca needs to find the strength to deal with her home crisis and rediscover the person she was meant to be. Australian author Melina Marchetta is one of my favorite writers. I love all her books, but this is the one I’ll want my daughters to read first when they’re old enough.
Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
The entire experience of reading the multiple, interweaving stories in Mitchell’s opus can be discomfiting (and exhilarating) in and of itself, and I found reading the book itself to be transformative. All of the stories of feature characters thrown out of their comfort zones: a sick young man harboring an escaped slave on a ship, a senior citizen incarcerated in a draconian nursing home, a young woman investigating a nuclear power plant. But perhaps no one is thrown out of her comfort zone like Somni 451, a genetically engineered fabricant (clone) in a dystopian future Korea who, suddenly, achieves consciousness. Her riveting story is the linchpin of this whole wondrous book. Which you should read it. And don’t tell me you’ve seen the movie. That doesn’t count. The movie didn’t come close to touching the book’s weird genius.
Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett
Pretty much everyone in Patchett’s novel is thrown out of their comfort zone after the guests at the ambassador of an unnamed South American’s country’s residence are taken hostage. It might sound like a tense thriller—and there are elements of that—but it’s really a series of love stories, between one of the captors and a quiet translator, between a star opera singer and the executive of a major electronics company, and between the “terrorists” and the hostages. Loyalties are tested, right alongside them, assumptions and suspicions. Music plays a major part, in bringing very different people together and, ultimately, transforming a hostage situation into something of a sanctuary. A heartbreaking, soul-lifting book.
Previously:Lauren Roedy Vaughn's Five Favorite Literary Adult Mentors... Plus Two Characters Who Need One.