Your early 20s can be strange and exciting, filled with uncertainty, new beginnings and the first opportunities to truly be an adult. These feelings are especially heightened when you throw not only career and life goals but also love into the mix. These two romances are very different in tone and setting, but they both feature young characters who are simultaneously falling in love and figuring out who they really are.
In Jennet Alexander’s I Kissed a Girl, Noa Birnbaum drops out of college a few credits shy of a degree to seize a chance at her big break, much to her mother’s dismay. Noa’s dream is to become a special effects makeup artist, and the opportunity to work on the set of the horror movie Scareodactyl is the first step toward union membership and a career in her chosen industry. Noa’s talents with latex and paint are evident, so almost from the beginning of the shoot, she is assigned to work with the film’s two stars, including the intimidatingly beautiful Lilah Silver.
Lilah hasn’t come out as bisexual in her professional life, but the chemistry between her and Noa is palpable and only grows during those many hours in the makeup chair. As their love story develops, Lilah is also trying to figure out the next step in her career. Does she want to remain a scream queen or try for something different? And where might Noa fit into Lilah’s dreams? Alexander includes thoughtful, introspective moments about the couple’s shared Jewish background but also keeps the tone light, even during a twist worthy of a horror movie. (Be forewarned: There’s a stalker and a lot of snakes.)
Sara Jafari’s The Mismatch feels a world away from the Hollywood horror of Alexander’s novel as it follows 21-year-old Soraya Nazari, a recent graduate of prestigious Goldsmiths University in London. Soraya’s arts degree hasn’t really given her a good idea of what she wants to do professionally—or given her a leg up on finding a decent job after graduation. She finds herself spending more time with fellow alum Magnus Evans, whose easy charm, good looks and flirtatious manner bely surprising depths, including family troubles.
Soraya’s family has secrets of its own, which readers discover as the coming-of-age story of Soraya’s mother, Neda, unfolds in parallel with her youngest daughter’s first foray into love. Neda grew up in Tehran and married Soraya’s father, Hossein, after knowing him for only a short time. The two of them emigrated to the U.K. for Neda’s education and, following the Iranian Revolution, it became their permanent home.
The Mismatch deals with some pretty dark subjects, including infidelity, drug use and physical abuse, but it’s also wryly and surprisingly funny, especially in Soraya’s and Neda’s matter-of-fact narration. While fans of more straightforward romances may want to look elsewhere (the emotional heart of the story really lies in Soraya’s family’s story, rather than the story of her relationship with Magnus), it’s still a thoughtful exploration of how we’re all shaped by our history—and how that history can in turn shape how, and with whom, we fall in love.