9 Novels About Finding Purpose and Identity Through Someone Else

Literature

Parents, siblings, friends, romantic partners, perfect strangers. I’m endlessly fascinated by how other people inform our sense of who we are and our place in the world. 

Once in a bookbinding workshop, my instructor told us that sometimes binders used to find personal letters hidden under the endpapers of books—the leaves at the beginning and end that are adhered to the inside covers. The thought of this struck me as incredibly romantic and tragic—a person’s desire to connect with someone else, but only in a way that might never be discovered—and it’s haunted me for years. 

My debut novel Endpapers explores this idea from the point of view of Dawn Levit, a genderqueer bookbinder and artist who finds a love letter hidden under the endpapers of a mid-century book she’s repairing. The note is written on the back of a torn-off cover of a 1950s lesbian pulp novel with an illustration of a woman looking into a mirror and seeing a man’s face. As Dawn struggles with her own gender identity, her romantic relationship, and her artist’s block, she becomes obsessed with tracking down the author of the letter, hoping it will help her understand herself and get her life on track. 

These 9 novels are about people searching for connection and what happens when we believe another person holds the key to a meaningful life and sense of self. What happens when we find—or don’t find—what we’re looking for? 

Memorial by Bryan Washington

This breathtaking novel is told from the alternating points of view of Benson, a Black daycare teacher, and his boyfriend Mike, a Japanese American chef. As the story opens, their relationship is already strained and Mike is preparing to leave for Osaka to see his estranged father, who’s dying. He doesn’t know when he’ll return. Benson is left behind to host Mike’s mother, who he’s never met, while Mike reckons with a father and a country he’s never had opportunities to know. It pulls both him and Benson in directions neither of them anticipated.

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

On an otherwise normal day in New York City, 11-year-old Deming Guo’s mother Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, goes to work at a nail salon and never returns. Deming is adopted by a white American family and renamed Daniel Wilkinson, but his search for his mother and the culture of his childhood doesn’t end there. Told from the perspective of both Deming and the fiercely independent Polly/Peilan, who aspires above all to retain the control she’s gained over her life, this novel explores the cruelness of American immigration policies by immersing us in a deeply personal saga about the strong bond between parents and children.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Twin sisters Desiree and Stella Vignes are identical, down to their dream of escaping their hometown where their father was lynched when they were children. But one day Stella disappears, shedding her ties to both her sister and her childhood life to secretly pass as white. Desiree stays behind to raise her Black daughter, but she embarks on a decades-long search for her sister that culminates when circumstances bring their daughters together. In this sweeping multigenerational saga, Bennett navigates race, identity, and the influence of history and family on our understanding of who we are.

The Likely World by Melanie Conroy-Goldman

Conroy-Goldman comes out swinging and doesn’t let up in her incredible gut punch of a debut. Mellie is a single mom battling her addiction to the fictional drug cloud, which has destroyed her short-term memory and her knowledge of her baby’s father along with it. When a strange man shows up in her driveway, Mellie becomes obsessed with tracking him down, believing he holds the key to the life and self she no longer has access to. But she fails to anticipate the danger her search ends up posing to herself, her daughter, and the sponsor who’s been helping them build a new, healthier life.

Let’s Get Back to the Party by Zak Salih

In Salih’s highly thought-provoking debut, it’s 2015, weeks after the Supreme Court has ruled gay marriage to be legal. Estranged childhood friends Sebastian and Oscar run into each other at a wedding, and while Sebastian craves connection over their shared history, Oscar has no interest. He’s too disgusted by what he sees as the death of gay culture: conformity and assimilation. As both men struggle to understand their place in an evolving world, they latch onto new friendships that border on obsession—Sebastian with one of his students, whose sense of freedom he envies, and Oscar with a revered gay novelist from the AIDS era. 

Singer Distance by Ethan Chatagnier

As 1960 draws to a close, Crystal Singer, her boyfriend Rick, and three MIT grad students drive out to the dessert to send a message to Mars, which has been silent for 30 years. But the weight of the mathematical understanding that allows Crystal to communicate with aliens also threatens her stability. Soon she disappears, setting Rick on a years-long path to find her. A book about chasing connection across the galaxy and across Earth, Singer Distance is a story of love, loneliness, and hope, mixed with insights about science, math, the universe, and who we are once we discover the truly complex nature of distance—between points and between one another.

The All-Night Sun by Diane Zinna

Lauren Cress lives two lives: the kind, intelligent college writing teacher and the lonely, grief-struck child still suffering the loss of her parents from ten years earlier. Then she meets her new student Siri, who possesses all the self-assurance, talent, and charm that Lauren believes she herself lacks. Drawn to the sense of belonging Siri offers her, Lauren throws herself into an intense and inappropriate friendship with her student, even accepting an invitation to join her on a trip home to Sweden for the summer. But the disturbing events that unfold there force Lauren to reckon with her own past and everything that’s been holding her back.

Fight Night by Miriam Toews

The latest brilliance from Miriam Toews gifts us quick-witted, audacious nine-year-old Swiv. After getting suspended from school over a fight, Swiv is stuck at home caring for her equally spirited but ailing grandmother, Elvira. As Swiv and Elvira turn homeschooling into an adventure, Swiv writes an ongoing letter to her father, who went missing years before. She never sends it, nor does she understand why he left to begin with, but she writes in the hope that he’ll eventually return—and also to process her fears about who she’ll become with a pregnant mother whose volatile emotions suggest she might be losing her mind and a grandmother who could die at any time. Ultimately, however, it’s Swiv’s mother and grandmother who show her who she is: one of a line of women who’ve risen up from great challenges to fight for a meaningful life.

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

Reese, a transwoman approaching her mid-30s, has been in a tailspin ever since her girlfriend Amy detransitioned to become Ames and their relationship ended. While Reese searches in all the wrong places for happiness, the thing she wants most—a child—gets further and further out of her reach. Meanwhile, Ames’s boss and lover, Katrina, gets pregnant. Ames is not ready to commit, either to Katrina or to life as a father, which would feel untrue to his gender identity, and Katrina doesn’t know if she’ll keep the baby without a partner. Seeing a chance to revive his connection with Reese and to live in a way that feels more authentic, Ames proposes the three of them become a family and raise the baby together. What ensues is a complicated and beautifully messy exploration of how these three women might entwine their lives to fulfill their own and one another’s deepest desires.

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