The theme of finding one's place in the world is a common one with writers. Whether our protagonist is a young person just out of school, or an adult at a crossroads, the "Who am I?" theme often strikes a chord with readers.
The trick is in the expository—how to tell enough backstory early on so that readers can understand where the protagonist is "coming from," and yet not give so much information that it's odd and awkward, and feels like an "info dump."
Two excellent recent examples in two different genres are Sweetbitter a novel by Stephanie Danler, and Perfectly Good Crime by Dete Meserve.
Sweetbitter is literary fiction that reads like a memoir; it could well be a Roman à clef but I haven't read enough about the writer to know that. It's the story of a young woman coming to the Big City (in this case, NYC) to escape a life that has stifled her, and to find out what moves her. She gets a job as a server in a swanky Manhattan restaurant and the rest, well, you'll have to read it yourself. Having waited tables in a couple of Manhattan hotspots myself, this book rings very true to the experience of serving—though my years "in service" (yes, sometimes it felt like indentured servitude) were in the 1980s and Sweetbitter is set in 2006.
Perfectly Good Crime is a mystery/crime novel, but Meserve transcends the genre by weaving in a subtle discourse on the current media, a complicated knot of politics and economics, and a love story. Set in Los Angeles, a city I know very well, it's about a young journalist who works for a local TV news show, and her attempt to figure out who is behind a unique series of crimes, while also figuring out her next career move and going though a profound life change. Meserve's previous novel is definitely worth reading, but you don't have to have read Good Sam to enjoy Perfectly Good Crime; you can read the two books in any order.
The beginning of both books gets us right into the action, with only a few oblique references to the events of each heroine's past. Some may find Sweetbitter to be a little too obscure when it comes to the protagonist's past, but for me it was perfect. The story begins when our main character arrives in NYC, the rest is background. Danler clues us in on expository as it is needed, not before. Perfectly Good Crime is the second in a series, but even so, there is not a huge "dump" of background information in the early chapters—rather, the backstory we need to know is skillfully seeded here and there, during the action of the book.
I highly recommend both books. If you only read genre novels, you might find that Sweetbitter is an intriguing and poetic change of pace that reminds you of being young and confused about exactly what kind of person you want to be. And if you only read "serious" literary fiction, perhaps you'd enjoy a fun, well-written mystery that deals with important issues but is uplifting as well as entertaining.
If you're lucky, Perfectly Good Crime will still be available on Kindle for 99 cents, as it is today...
8/31/21 RMB August Farewell
1 month ago