Novelists are willing to explore the challenges and dilemmas of aging to create a wide array of interesting, mature protagonists and the issues they face at midlife and beyond. Our choices in contemporary fiction feature complex characters and encompass themes that are timeless and ageless, which can provide insight about the people we know or suggest what lies ahead for our future selves.
- Olive, Again Posted in: Arts, Curmudgeons and Other Eccentric Characters, Fiction, Widows and Widowers
By Elizabeth Strout – Random House, 2019
Welcome back, Olive Kitteridge! It’s been over a decade since Elizabeth Strout introduced us to the most incorrigible resident of Crosby, Maine. Olive Kitteridge (2008) won the Pulitzer Prize, became a New York Times bestseller and was later adapted for an HBO miniseries. Yet Strout tells the New Yorker that she never intended to bring Olive back, saying she believed, “I was done with her, and she with me.” We are so glad that didn’t stick.
We rejoin Olive at age 73. She’s widowed now, lonely but still acerbic and off-putting to those she encounters. She finds neighbor Jack Kennison—a retired professor she and her husband felt was entitled and arrogant—incapacitated on a path, helps him up and learns they are both widowed and are somewhat estranged from their only children. Soon, Olive and Jack are married, and neither of their adult children understands it. And so it goes, each chapter a vignette that reveals Olive evolving. In some ways so dreadful, Olive becomes a woman we believe redeemable. She holds onto old ideas but starts to make room for the possibility there could be another way to see the truth. It’s inspiring to see the retired teacher become the student, and empathy takes hold of her, if transiently. Gradually, she becomes the person we hope to be in later life when confronted with the grow-or-die circumstances life throws at us. You don’t have to read the original Olive Kitteridge to enjoy Olive, Again, but I think you’ll want to. We’re so glad Strout brought Olive back and we join the fans hoping for a prequel: Olive, Before?
- When All is Said: Five Toasts, Five people, One Lifetime Posted in: Arts, Families, Fiction, Friendships
By Anne Griffin – Thomas Dunne Books, 2019
In something like a farewell address to his son, 84-year-old Maurice Hannigan sits by himself in a hotel bar, recalling his personal history, with a toast to each of the five most important people in his long and successful, if imperfect, life. In five distinct stories, he tells his son, Kevin, how his experiences and relationships made him the man he is at the later end of his life. He admits he still longs for the reassurance of his older brother, long deceased, and that the spirit of his stillborn baby daughter remains throughout his adult life. He drinks to his late sister-in-law and what he learned from his relationship with this fragile woman. He drinks to his son, examining his own shortcomings as a father who didn’t understand Kevin’s need for separateness. Finally, he toasts his late wife, whom he adored, but who was often a target for his frustrations. With each drink, more of Maurice is revealed. His grief is palpable; his candor, remarkable. He’s owning, without excusing, his failures as a husband and father. Now, he’s left with wealth and little more, and he wants to set the record straight in a way that might right the wrongs, old and new.
We come to understand that Maurice plans to join his recently departed wife in the ever-after later that night, but the story isn’t grim. Rather, his disclosures leave you thinking about the people in your own life who’ve made all the difference. If you’re a sucker for an Irish brogue, you’ll be absolutely mesmerized by the audio version of this novel. We can only assume it’s equally good to read. Either way, this debut novel is worth every second of your time.
- What Rose Forgot Posted in: Arts, Fiction, Mysteries and Thrillers
By Nevada Barr – Minotaur Books, 2019
Imagine that you’re trapped in a locked, memory care unit in a nursing home. You can’t remember anything about the last few months of your life, but you know who you are, and you’re pretty sure you’re being drugged and held against your will—especially after you overhear an administrator predict that you won’t make it through the week. That’s Rose’s situation at the start of this nail-biter of a thriller. Once she escapes the nursing home, Rose is a highly satisfactory protagonist. She’s 68 and she’s no superhero, but she’s smart and resourceful, crusty but vulnerable. As she’s hunted by the police and the unknown individuals who had her locked away, her stalwart 13-year-old granddaughter, Mel, becomes her confederate. The story is fast-moving, intense but often quite funny, and the relationship between Rose and Mel will warm your heart.
- My Ex-Life: A Novel Posted in: Arts, Families, Fiction, Friendships
By Stephen McCauley – Flatiron Books, 2018
Julie and David each face an impossible situation. They are both confronting midlife, are single and losing their homes; he, in San Francisco, she, on the coast of Massachusetts. They used to be married to one another, but when David came out to Julie, they divorced. Julie remarried and had a daughter and divorced again; she is struggling to reinvent herself as an innkeeper while raising her college-bound (or not) teen. David works as a college advisor to the privileged and entitled, not earning enough to maintain his lifestyle, and his recent ex has set his sights on the grand carriage house David rents for a pittance. Though they haven’t spoken in decades, when Julie reaches out to David to help her daughter, Mandy, he comes east with nothing to lose. Their friendship rekindles in the satisfying way a mature pairing can, though not without pitfalls. They know each other intimately, and together they discover that his yin to her yang makes them a forceful duo. She has no business savvy, he’s organized with an eye for detail. Laced with witty dialogue and well-developed characters, this is a modern story of friendship and family.
- Mornings with Rosemary Posted in: Arts, Curmudgeons and Other Eccentric Characters, Fiction, Friendships, Women’s Lives
By Libby Page – Simon and Schuster (2018)
Editor’s note: This book was previously published as The Lido.
To some, the town of Brixton in south London would be just another storybook enclave. To widowed, 86-year-old Rosemary, it’s her world. And her world is changing. For the longest time, she knew everyone’s name, every shop and every shop owner. But a pub took the place of the grocery, and the library where she used to work is now closed. Her one constant is the lido. It’s the rec center and pool where she swims every day to escape and reminisce. It’s where she met her husband, married him and built their satisfying life. Now the lido is threatened as well; developers want to turn it into a health club.
Kate, a friendless, fledgling journalist in her 20s, gets a small job at a small newspaper in the small town of Brixton. Often paralyzed by depression and anxiety, she wants her lifestyle stories to make a difference, to give her life meaning. When she hears about an effort to “save the lido,” she finds Rosemary, who agrees to meet with Kate only if she’ll agree to swim. Not a swimmer, Kate finds it surprisingly therapeutic. Both lonely and lacking a sense of purpose that knows no age, Rosemary and Kate join forces to keep the lido afloat and, in doing so, rescue one another. This is a buoyant tale of friendship borne of resisting the changes that come from “progress.”
- An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good Posted in: Arts, Curmudgeons and Other Eccentric Characters, Fiction, Mysteries and Thrillers
By Helene Tursten – Soho Crime, 2018
What a romp! Don’t let this sweet face fool you, or you’ll be taken in by Maud. Imagine an innocent-looking older woman who is also a serial killer. Naughty doesn’t begin to describe her and the antics she’s involved in. At 88, Maud has no friends or family and seems to like it that way. She has no tolerance for fools and no qualms about expressing her opinion nor acting on impulse. Wily, crafty Maud isn’t above feigning feeblemindedness to get what she wants. Will the authorities never learn? Told in short vignettes laced with subtle, black humor, the chapters are best savored one at a time. This tiny gem of a book—184 pages—is for anyone who has been underestimated and prevailed.
- The Lager Queen of Minnesota: A Novel Posted in: Families, Fiction, Women’s Lives
By J. Ryan Stradal – Pamela Dorman Books (2019)
Thirsty for a feel-good, intergenerational, family saga? This is a story of love, hardship and pure Minnesotan can-do. Estranged for 50 years, sisters Edith and Helen are both aging into poverty—one, financial, and one, emotional. Edith has spent her life struggling to make ends meet, never quite able to explore her own dreams. Helen has scrapped and schemed to make her lifelong dream of brewing beer a success, but the end of that road has turned out differently than she expected. Then there’s Diana, Edith’s granddaughter, who lurches her way through a childhood clouded by grief and delinquency into a career she never expected. When Diana is unable to nurture her fledgling brewery, Edith and her friends (all over 60) step in. None has ever brewed beer; some of them don’t even like it. None of them blink an eye. And here’s the best part: no one tells these women that they are too old to do it. Along the way, the women all learn a bit more about themselves and what they want to do with their lives (including making beers they would actually want to drink). Edith, Helen and Diana’s stories intertwine with interesting facts about beer and with what it’s like to grow up and grow old. This is a refreshing story that all can enjoy, even if your preferred brew is tea.
- Don’t Ever Get Old: A Mystery Posted in: Curmudgeons and Other Eccentric Characters, Fiction, Mortality, Mysteries and Thrillers
By Daniel Friedman–Minotaur Books, 2013
This really hits the high notes for being a clever crime novel that’s also an honest portrayal of an aging, opinionated gumshoe. Long retired at 87, Buck Schatz had a decorated career with the Memphis police department. He’s known as a no-nonsense detective who still holds the record for killing the most suspects. (Buck has no regrets, they deserved it.) A Jewish veteran of World War II, Buck endured incarceration in a Nazi prison camp. Now he discovers that his torturer has escaped Germany and has been living in the United States. Buck enlists his grandson, Tequila, to teach him how to use technology to foil his nemesis. Soon Buck and Tequila are murder suspects themselves. Throughout their adventure, Buck grudgingly accepts his failing memory and deteriorating body (readers will appreciate his sense of humor about his mortality) while relying on his still-sharp intuition. Buck is a colorful character who doesn’t shy away from candid observations, often wickedly funny. Read this novel somewhere you can freely laugh out loud. And if you love it like we did, you’ll be happy to know there’s a sequel: Don’t Ever Look Back (2014).
- Women in Sunlight Posted in: Fiction, Friendships, Women’s Lives
By Frances Mayes—Crown, 2018
If you were one of the millions of readers who dreamed of moving to a fixer-upper in Italy after reading Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun (1996), get ready to pack your bags because she’s done it again. In her new novel, three single women are considering the next chapter of their lives during an exploratory visit to an upscale retirement community. Camille, 69, Susan, 64, and Julia, 59, are each moving on after personal tragedies. Despite knowing each other just a very short time, they decide to rent an Italian villa together. They are conflicted about the commitment to full retirement; the trip will serve to sow some oats and get the wanderlust from their systems. This story revolves around the power of place, lush with description, and of mature and supportive friendships. Ahh, the menus, the wine, the shopping, the freedom. How lovely it is for our trio: they seem to eat without gaining weight and furnish a villa, buy art and tour the countryside with indifference to the cost. (It is fiction, after all, and a glorious escape.)
- Love and Other Consolation Prizes: A Novel Posted in: Families, Fiction
By Jamie Ford — Ballantine Books, 2017
Ernest Young, a mixed-race, bastard child in the early 1900s, travels alone on a freighter from China to the United States, sent by his mother, who is desperate for him to escape certain poverty and famine. This well-researched work of historical fiction tells the story of Ernest’s journey: placed in an orphanage, auctioned off at the world’s fair; and of his life in a brothel and all the years after, until he’s an older man, when he is confronted by his daughter, who discovers pieces of the truth Ernest has never divulged. As he relives his memories, he wonders if looking at the past could help his wife, who has dementia. And would that be a good thing?
This novel is a story of a husband’s devotion to his beloved wife and the memories they’ve kept between them. It may make you question how you defend the decisions you have made in difficult times, or how you might choose to share the less-flattering pieces of your life with your children. In the end, do you think an uncomfortable truth should be a burden taken to the grave?
- The Housekeeper and the Professor Posted in: Families, Fiction, Friendships
By Yoko Ogawa — Picador, 2009
Translated from Japanese, so elegant and spare that it’s quite remarkable, this novella should not be missed. Neither main character is ever named. The housekeeper narrates the story of the professor, who retains his brilliant mind after a car accident but is left stuck in 1975 and can hold onto nothing new beyond the last 80 minutes. The housekeeper, a high school dropout with a 10-year-old son, must reintroduce herself at least once a day. Despite the difference in their academic backgrounds, they use mathematics to put systems in place for the professor to live with some autonomy. He bonds with her son, whom he calls Root for his flat head that resembles the square-root symbol. The two connect over a mutual love of baseball, which is, after all, a game of numbers. This story extolls the value and simplicity of living in the present and shows how we can unite with one another over common ground if we just slow down long enough to recognize it.
- The Dollhouse: A Novel Posted in: Mysteries and Thrillers, Women’s Lives
By Fiona Davis — Dutton, 2017
Aspiring career women of the 1950s often left home to attend secretarial school or to seek jobs in New York City. The times called for young, unmarried women to live in supervised boarding houses to preserve their reputations, and the glamorous Barbizon Hotel was one such residence. The women experienced unfathomable sexism, yet they played as hard as they worked, with forbidden escorts and visits to jazz clubs in “bad” parts of town. This novel centers around the Barbizon, which was renovated to upscale condominiums in 1981. A few original tenants, now in their 80s, like Darby McLaughlin, were grandmothered in and still live on the fourth floor. New renter Rose Lewin, a journalist, is intrigued by an unsolved mystery from the ’50s and is determined to solve it with Darby’s help. Readers will enjoy this look at vintage Manhattan as the duo’s reconnaissance takes us back to the hotel’s heyday, illuminating the lives of residents and staff at that time in the city’s history.
- The Story of Arthur Truluv: A Novel Posted in: Friendships, Voices/Views, Widows and Widowers
By Elizabeth Berg – Random House, 2017
If it seems as though the bookshelves are full of crotchety-old-people stories, and you’re left aching to believe that all people don’t end up curmudgeons, Elizabeth Berg’s The Story of Arthur Truluv may be just what the doctor (or librarian) ordered. Every day, 85-year-old Arthur Moses leaves his garden, packs a lunch and takes the bus to the cemetery to talk to Nola, his late wife. His only other regular companion is Lucille, an 80-year-old neighbor who still pines over a lost love. In the cemetery, Maddie, an 18-year-old rebel with poor taste in suitors, avoids the bullies at school and a cold father at home. When she hears Arthur talking to Nola, she names him Truluv, and an unlikely friendship forms, a kinship of those who have loved and lost. Arthur is a found treasure in Maddie’s sad life, and ultimately she gives purpose to his. Soon Arthur and Lucille support Maddie and give her what she’s always craved, while Maddie helps them to live independently at home. The intergenerational piece of this story is moving and reminds us how we all crave acceptance and a listening ear. Read this one to restore your faith that aging won’t leave you grumpy.
- The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old Posted in: Fiction, Friendships, Humor, Mortality
By Hendrik Groen – Michael Joseph, 2016
Do you ever imagine a typical day in a care home? According to 83-year-old resident Hendrik Groen, there is no such thing. He’s keeping a diary of life in the North Amsterdam pensioners’ apartments, and no secret is unwritten, including what he wishes he could say aloud if he were not so unfailingly polite. Hendrik’s diary is fiction but reads like autobiography. Facing aging head on, Hendrik and friends find humor where they can, whether it be dumping cake in the aquarium or watching the “old biddies” loosen the salt shaker on an unsuspecting dining companion. That’s not to say the diary is all fluff. Hendrik labors over buying the right mobility scooter and ponders the ethics of euthanasia when friends are ill. We can learn a great deal from Hendrik; his contentment comes from the give-and-take of genuine friendship, having a sense of purpose and always having a plan to move forward. The book is so thoroughly delightful and big-hearted, I can’t wait to read the sequel, On the Bright Side (2018).
- My Mrs. Brown: A Novel Posted in: Fiction, Women’s Lives
By William Norwich – Simon and Schuster, 2016
Mrs. Brown is a drab and proper widow, living an invisible existence picking up after others in a small-town beauty shop, where she hears everything and says nothing. Staff and clients couldn’t care less about her in her thrift-shop clothes. An excellent seamstress with an eye for detail, she takes in sewing work to supplement her modest income. When the town’s society maven dies, Mrs. Brown helps clean out the mansion. In doing so, she spies an elegant, timeless Oscar de la Renta dress—and she knows she must have that dress, even though she cannot articulate why. This is a sweet story that takes you from pitying Mrs. B to cheering her on to get the dress. We’ve probably all had a have-to-have-it moment. Curiously, this was hers. It is in the pursuit of the dress that the real Mrs. Brown is awakened and appreciated. This little book, like Mrs. Brown herself, is not to be dismissed.
- And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer: A Novella Posted in: Families, Fiction, Mortality, Voices/Views
By Fredrik Backman — Atria, 2016
Just when you think you’ve read all of the books you’ll ever need on dementia and the long goodbye, along comes this glorious novella from Fredrik Backman, easily the best thing to come to the United States from Sweden since IKEA. Not initially intending to share, Backman wrote this to explore his feelings on familial love and loss. Readers familiar with his work (A Man Called Ove, Britt-Marie Was Here) will recognize his positive portrayals of older adults. Here, on a bench with his beloved grandson Noah, Grandfather realizes his memory is slipping and worries he’ll forget the loves of his life. Understanding what’s at stake, Noah tries to help his grandfather hold on to the happy times. Through a shared love of mathematics, the pair can face infinity and the concept of forever without fear. This gem is sprinkled with illustrations, but it’s the poetry of Backman’s words that create a visually memorable experience, to be read, reread and shared.
- The One-in-a-Million Boy Posted in: Families, Fiction, Friendships
By Monica Wood – Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016
Quinn is a professional musician, perennially on the road, who feels remorse for missing so much of his sweet and unusual son’s too-short life. Now that it’s too late, as penance, he takes on a Boy Scout commitment his son had made and meets 104-year-old Ona Vitkus, a contrary, reclusive woman who has seen more than her share of well-intentioned Scouts. While filling Ona’s birdfeeders, Quinn learns that his son had endeared himself to Ona and had started a recording of her life for a school project. He also discovers his son was a savant, of sorts, when it came to the Guinness Book of World Records, and Quinn takes up the 8-year-old’s quest to get Ona into the record book. Sentimental without ever being sappy, this is a heartwarming, heartbreaking story of friendship and of not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone.
- The Guts Posted in: Families, Midlife Crossings
By Roddy Doyle – Viking Adult, 2014
Booker Prize-winning author Roddy Doyle reprises hero Jimmy Rabbitte in The Guts, a sequel to The Commitments (Vintage, 1989). Matured now, Rabbitte is a 50-something father with a wife who loves him and a mostly good relationship with his extended family, in particular his dad. Rabbitte just found out he has cancer. A once-popular musician himself, he now makes a living connecting people to the old music artists and albums they love. His work takes him across Ireland where he reconnects with a former bandmate and a long-ago love. Spurred by his health crisis, he also seeks to reunite with his estranged brother. This is an Irish tale of middle-age awakenings, driven in no small part by his diagnosis. You don’t need to read the original to enjoy this sequel. Doyle’s colorful language may turn off some readers but this novel is worth reading for anyone who enjoys a strong character and a good plot.
- This is Your Life, Harriet Chance Posted in: Humor, Widows and Widowers, Women’s Lives
By Jonathan Evison – Algonquin Books, 2016
Harriet Chance is a delightful 78-year-old who enjoys a drink and talking to her late husband, Bernard. When Harriet learns that Bernard won an Alaskan cruise, she consults with him about going—she’s not a traveler, after all—and decides to take the trip. Once on board, Harriet is joined by a tedious, estranged daughter and is confronted with the fact that most of her life has not been as it seemed to her.
The story is told in the format of the ’50s television program “This is Your Life,” complete with the slow reveal of the contestant’s lifetime of hits and misses. Author Evison’s third-person narration mimics a television host’s as Harriet is laid bare as a wife, mother and friend. This bittersweet novel is a story of regret, redemption and self-forgiveness, with humor and memorable characters. It’s fun and hopeful and very hard to put down.
- The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted: And Other Small Acts of Liberation Posted in: Short Story Collections, Women’s Lives
By Elizabeth Berg – Random House, 2008
Award-winning writer Elizabeth Berg shines in this book of short stories, told as you would talk to a friend at the kitchen table. One poignant and touching story tells the tale of two women in their 80s, friends for 50 years, who have accepted without words that one has reached the end of her life. In another story, a defiant dieter goes AWOL for a day, eats what makes her happy, if not satisfied, and returns to Weight Watchers with no one the wiser. And in another, an unsolicited recipe for pie is delivered in a meandering letter from an old family friend. In voices—each different, yet familiar—these 13 stories touch on many issues of a woman’s life. You will want to curl up with tea and tissues to savor every one.