Characters I Almost Missed

“You will get paid to read and review current fiction if it has a compelling story with an aging protagonist.” Sounds like a good news-bad news joke, right? I love fiction, I told my boss, but the thought of reading novels starring an older person was filling me with dread. I’m in my mid-50s. I found the assignment depressing.

“You want me to read hen lit?” I asked Kay Klotzburger, president of the Silver Century Foundation. Hen lit is women’s fiction not unlike chick lit, but written for women of a certain age. If you think that term is bad, in the United Kingdom, light narratives with a female protagonist 40 and older are called matron lit—as if I’d be reading that.

My hesitation was not only my very slight case of snobbery when it comes to my fiction choices, but because I just could not imagine how a plot centered on the life of an older man or woman could be remotely interesting.

And that, my fellow readers, is where I was so wrong. In fact, I have thoroughly enjoyed several books that my heretofore preconception would have had me miss.

Olive Kitteridge (2008) by Elizabeth Strout was the first one. Olive is cantankerous, but not to the point of ludicrousness. I hate to admit it, but I have more than a little Olive in me. She touched on those personality traits I’d rather not own.

I would propose marriage to the retired military man of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (2010) by Helen Simonson. I could live a quaint life in his very British country home. Defying stereotype, he falls for a woman from Pakistan and irks his ungrateful, pretentious son.

I rooted for Percy Darling in Julia Glass’ The Widower’s Tale, (2011); he deserved better. And I was 100 percent behind John and Ella as they went AWOL for one last RV ride in Michael Zadoorian’s The Leisure Seeker (2009).

An author brave enough to write about a woman slipping slow motion into dementia took me by surprise. I thought Turn of Mind (2012), a thriller by Alice LaPlante, would be too depressing to read, yet my heart ached for the protagonist, so real was her fight, courage and grace.

I couldn’t imagine how the minutiae of the life of an 80-year-old widow would be worth my time. Emily, Alone (2011), by Stewart O’Nan, truly moved me. How does a 50-year-old engineer nail a character as complex as Emily?

These authors—and, I am now convinced, others—have done what I thought was impossible. They opened my eyes to the richness of later life. I have been left with an idea of what my older friends and family members are going through or what they may have already experienced. Perhaps I can say I know them a little better for the reading I have been assigned.