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.
- 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.
- How It All Began Posted in: Midlife Crossings
By Penelope Lively – Viking, 2012
A chain of events unfolds in London. A 76-year-old literacy volunteer named Charlotte is mugged and forced to convalesce at the home of her adult daughter, Rose. Unfulfilled, reliable Rose works for Lord Peters, an aging academic trying desperately to stay credible. His niece, Marion, filling in for Rose while Charlotte recovers, becomes a victim of a scam that could devastate her financially. Housebound Charlotte accepts Anton as a private student, and soon Rose becomes intrigued by her mother’s pupil, a hardworking immigrant hoping to improve his English for better job prospects. Unexpected developments keep the reader turning pages and continuously surprise this wonderfully developed cast of characters, all either in advanced years or in the midst of midlife changes.
- Instructions for a Heatwave Posted in: Families
Maggie O’Farrell is a master of creating recognizable, flawed characters, and here she delivers once again. Gretta and Robert are long married with grown children; they have an easy routine to their days. Like their fellow Londoners, the couple are struggling to deal with the summer’s unrelenting heat and drought. But is the oppressive weather what caused Robert to go for a walk one morning and simply vanish without a word? His disappearance brings the children—Michael Francis, Monica and Aoife—back under the same roof for the first time in years to help Gretta find their father. The heat makes things seem too heavy to carry but each family member lightens their load with every weighty secret that is revealed.
- Emily, Alone Posted in: Widows and Widowers, Women’s Lives
Stewart O’Nan has a knack for crafting seemingly mundane and minute details into such thoughtful prose that his words become etched in a reader’s mind. In this novel, Emily is a widow in her 80s who has given up driving, resigned to relying on her sister-in-law, Arlene, as chauffeur. When Arlene faints at their regular lunch buffet, Emily drives home. This single moment sparks a renewal of her independence. With an ironic sense that she is reversing her dependence on others at an advanced age, what follows is a year in the life of Emily Maxwell. O’Nan’s depiction is so believable, you may be convinced that he was an older woman in a previous life, and so intimate, it feels like spying. Has O’Nan offered us a look into our own aging, perhaps?
- Faith Bass Darling’s Last Garage Sale Posted in: Curmudgeons and Other Eccentric Characters, Families, Women’s Lives
Septuagenarian Faith Bass Darling—once spunky and vibrant, now merely eccentric—has dementia, and her memories are unreliable at best. On the eve of Y2K, acting on a message from God, reclusive Faith puts all of her worldly possessions out on the front lawn to sell for a fraction of their considerable worth. Estranged daughter Claudia returns to find what’s left of her family estate in shambles, a legacy extinguished. Her mother is now virtually unreachable, proving even old money and good health can’t buy a happy ending. The story features well-developed and endearing characters, revealing a history of a privileged family life tinged with sadness and misunderstanding. Author Rutledge ultimately asks us to consider: what is left of who we are if our memories fail and our possessions no longer hold any value? What if we gave them all away?
- Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand Posted in: Love Stories, Widows and Widowers
Celebrate the agelessness of falling in love with this later-life romance. Widowed from long, happy marriages, retired Major Ernest Pettigrew and Pakistani shopkeeper Mrs. Jasmina Ali are charming, proper and delightfully quick-witted. In Austen-esque Edgecombe St. Mary, an English country town steeped in tradition, locals are uncomfortable with any change that challenges their conservative way of life. Predictably, this opposites-attract romance is thwarted by both society and family, particularly by the Major’s despicably pretentious son and the righteous Alis. In this stellar debut novel, Simonson depicts an enviable stage in life when one’s happiness trumps the approval of others, but not without a price. Touching on issues of class and cultural bias, at its core, this is a tale of a fortunate second chance at love.
- The Roots of the Olive Tree: A Novel Posted in: Families
By Courtney Miller Santo – William Morrow, 2012
Imagine five generations of first-born women living under one roof. At 112, Anna Keller is the second-oldest person alive: her daughter, Betts, is 90 and great-great-granddaughter, Erin, is in her 20s. Is their longevity due to genetics or to a diet rich in olive oil from the family farm? A curious geneticist aims to use the information he uncovers to help others live extended, healthy lives. His research turns up some long-held family secrets in the process. The women have their unresolved issues and petty grievances, as one might imagine, but the characters are credible and keeping them straight is as easy as ABC—Anna, Betts, Callie, Deb and Erin. To see a centenarian portrayed as a vital, competent, independent woman is a treat, and you may be tempted to add olive oil to your diet and beauty regimen like the age-defying Keller women.
- So Much for That Posted in: Families
Only the bravest writer would consider America’s broken health care system fodder for fiction. Lionel Shriver brings us Shep Knacker, a generous, middle-aged everyman who has sacrificed and invested, planning an early retirement in Africa. Plane tickets in hand, he is confronted with news of his wife’s terminal illness. Shep’s relationships with family and friends are tested in the ordeal of his wife’s battle with cancer. His health insurance is inadequate, his job is demoralizing and the caregiving is exhausting. The characters are real; the dialogue, intelligent, cynical and witty; the issue, so relevant but uncomfortable. Chronicled at the start of each chapter is Shep’s rapidly dwindling Merrill Lynch account, begging you to consider: just how much is one life worth? This fictional account that feels all too real shows how the burden of health care is borne by the survivors.
- Please Look After Mom Posted in: Families
Do you really know your mother? After reading this story, you may want to think again. Widely acclaimed in her native Korea, Kyung-Sook Shin debuts in the United States with a moving story of a woman who disappears in a train station. As family members search for Park So-nyo, it becomes clear that they know very little about her. The true humanity of the missing woman comes to light, told from four perspectives: her two adult children, her husband and Park So-nyo herself. How will they find someone who has been all but invisible to them while wearing the cloak of wife and mother? As the characters peel away Park So-nyo’s intricate, private layers, we readers may find ourselves looking at the women in our own lives through the lens of their discoveries and realizing that wives and mothers everywhere have hidden worlds we would never think to imagine.
- Orphan Train Posted in: Friendships
By Christina Baker Kline – HarperCollins, 2013
At age 90, Vivian Daly’s serene life doesn’t suggest the challenges she faced after her family perished in a 1920s tenement fire in New York City. Orphan Train reveals a woeful piece of American history and is thorough in its depiction of the terrible truth: Vivian was one of a quarter million orphaned or abandoned children placed on Midwest-bound trains, under the guise of finding them a better life. Decades later, Molly, a rudderless, angst-filled teen from foster care, as penance for a petty crime, does community service wherein she helps neighbor Vivian sort through the detritus of her attic. In the boxes of albums, Molly sees there’s more to Vivian than she expected. Despite the years between them, the two find they have much in common, enough for Molly to believe that her future might hold promise. We love it that the pair can have a meaningful, intergenerational connection.
- The Bird Sisters Posted in: Families, Women’s Lives
This is a beautiful and heartbreaking story of two sisters, now in their 70s, who still live in the house where they grew up. Called the Bird Sisters because they rehabilitate wounded and dying birds, they are eccentrics in a small Wisconsin town of gently quirky inhabitants. Their story is told in chapters that alternate between the present and 1947, when the girls were teenagers trying to fix their parents’ broken marriage. They reflect on a cousin in fragile health whose summer visit changed them all. These charming, naïve sisters thought they knew what their futures held: a secure and predictable married life for sweet Millie and adventure for ornery Twiss. Neither got what she wanted. The Bird Sisters is a tale of secrets, sisterly love and devotion, and of two women you’ll remember long after you close the book.
- The Leisure Seeker Posted in: Humor, Love Stories, Mortality
You will wish you owned a roadside stop along Route 66 so you could meet Ella and John Robina, married a half-century, as they run away from home on their final road trip to Disneyland. Against all advice, from medical to familial, the defiant, independent, 80-something Robinas navigate their RV from Detroit to California without regret or apology. Ella, who has refused further treatment for cancer, is stubborn and often in pain. She’s sarcastic and loving, angry and tender. Weaving in and out of coherence and traffic is John, his ability to drive not yet affected by progressing dementia, but not always sure where he is, either on the map or in life. Neither sappy nor morbid, Michael Zadoorian portrays these romantic octogenarians as rich, complex characters. Filled with dark humor and the sense of impending tragedy, The Leisure Seeker remains the love story of a couple determined to live, and end, their lives in their own way.
- The Widower’s Tale Posted in: Families, Love Stories, Widows and Widowers
Fans of National Book Award winner Julia Glass know how richly drawn and complex her characters can be. The Widower’s Tale weaves together the lives of the family and acquaintances of widower Percival Darling, a 70-something retired librarian. Percy is erudite and cynical. At his core, he is a family man with compassion for his motherless adult daughters and his beloved grandson, all with dramas of their own. Thirty years after his wife’s drowning, Percy falls for a single mother and her adopted son. Subplots of eco-terrorism, cancer, class, immigration and gay marriage are pulled together to a satisfying conclusion. In creating a septuagenarian who emails and swims in the nude, Glass avoids the obvious stereotypes and has created a very memorable and attractive patriarch.
- The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey Posted in: Friendships, Mortality
There is no sugar coating in this realistic tale of a man stuck in the past with seemingly nothing to live for. A hermit in a filthy apartment, 91-year-old Ptolemy Grey is dealing with violence and abandonment, compounded by his spiral into paralyzing dementia. Ptolemy has a secret fortune hidden away, but his family dynamic is as uncertain as his memory. When his beloved, caregiving nephew is killed in a drive-by shooting, a beautiful, street-smart, yet selfless teenage runaway, Robyn, comes to help Ptolemy. She wants the best for him and her presence helps clear the cobwebs. A shady doctor offers Ptolemy an experimental drug that would restore his memory but end his life in just a few weeks. When Ptolemy chooses to embrace his final days with clarity and purpose, he leaves Robyn to wonder if she has done right by him. Author Mosley delivers with credible dialogue and characters we truly care about.
- Breaking Out of Bedlam Posted in: Curmudgeons and Other Eccentric Characters, Families, Women’s Lives
Meet cantankerous Cora, taken from her home by well-meaning adult children who worry about her over-medicating and disregard for personal hygiene. At age 82 and 300 pounds, widowed Cora is placed, against her wishes, into assisted living. In a journal gifted to her by a grandchild, Cora reveals the story of her life from her shotgun wedding at 17, through the loss of her husband, and to her arrival at the Palisades nursing home. The staff and residents are scrutinized with Cora’s brand of candor and profanity—you’ll shake your head at Cora’s contempt as she sets the record straight and begins life anew. Kudos for Leslie Larson for a refreshing take on a stage of life so often portrayed disparagingly. How nice to see Cora learning, growing and reinventing herself!
- The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry Posted in: Midlife Crossings
This tale is comfort food for a reader’s soul. Harold Fry is a recently retired salesman coexisting with his chronically discontent, intolerant wife. Out of the blue, a goodbye letter arrives from Harold’s former coworker Queenie Hennessey, who is dying in hospice 600 miles away. Ever-conflicted about the right thing to do, milquetoast Harold pens a response but finds himself unable to mail the letter. A chance encounter with a stranger leaves Harold convinced that he must say goodbye in person, and that he must walk to keep Queenie alive. Determined and single-minded, Harold leaves a phone message for Queenie, imploring her to hang on until he can get there. Harold is earnest and almost painfully endearing; his journey can’t possibly save a life—or can it?
- Last Man in Tower Posted in: Midlife Crossings
Winner of the 2008 Man Booker prize for White Tiger, Aravind Adiga delivers a novel that transcends borders of geography and culture. New money is being infused into Mumbai and the city is changing quickly. The respectable high-rise where retired teacher Masterji has raised his family is slated for demolition to make way for an exclusive apartment building. Masterji is mourning the recent death of his wife, adjusting to retirement, trying to remain vital and age with dignity. A charming, corrupt, real estate mogul offers an exorbitant settlement to expedite the sale of the apartments, but Masterji is staying put, the lone dissenter. Loyalties are questioned as Masterji’s friends and family reject his decision to stay in his apartment, yet he does not succumb to psychological terror. India may seem exotic, its customs and religions unfamiliar to some readers, but when money and power threaten to corrupt a community, we see that we may not be so different after all.
- State of Wonder Posted in: Mysteries and Thrillers
By Ann Patchett – Harper, 2011
A medical mystery set in an exotic locale, intriguing characters, family drama, life and death—it’s all here in this ambitious novel. Scientist Marina Singh is dispatched to the rain forest by her Midwestern pharmaceutical company to investigate the mysterious death of a coworker. The deceased had been documenting the research of a 70-something rogue doctor who claimed that the native women of the forest could bear children throughout their full lives. Though impeded by insects, cannibals and sickness, Marina is determined to get to the bottom of the story. Your skin will crawl and your heart race as the story unfolds, and in the end of this intense and intriguing work of fiction, you may wonder, should what happens in the jungle, stay in the jungle?
- Olive Kitteridge Posted in: Curmudgeons and Other Eccentric Characters, Short Story Collections, Women’s Lives
Are you bored with the glut of female protagonists, divorced, barely out of their 20s, helpless and relying on serendipity to get by? Meet Olive Kitteridge, a heroine like no other. In this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel told in 13 short stories, you may identify with Olive as she becomes older, unapologetic and real. She complains and she judges, all the while observing others critically as they take on life’s challenges. Hidden beneath a crust of personal shortcomings, Olive emerges as a friend in times of need, a loving but flawed mother, and a woman who grows to accept life on life’s terms. You’ll find yourself rooting for this antihero, who is aware of her own aging and mortality, always surprising with her underlying compassion. Here’s to the Olive Kitteridge in all of us.