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.
- Everything Must Go Posted in: Arts, Families, Fiction
By Camille Pagán — Lake Union Publishing, 2022
Laine Francis is a professional organizer who, since childhood, has wanted to put things in order. When Laine’s own life becomes her next organizing challenge, she faces it head-on. She returns to her family home in Brooklyn from Michigan. The timing is right; she feels she can no longer stay with the baby-averse husband adored by her family; she just bade farewell to her beloved dog. Both of Laine’s sisters confide that they’ve become concerned that their mother, Sally, is slipping into dementia. Sally’s been seen going to the store in a negligee, frequently forgetting significant things, making excuses and denying her decline. The sisters confront the possibility of losing their mother to Alzheimer’s and the immense, complex care that she’ll need going forward. It’s these heartfelt conversations that make the Francis sisters endearing. They are credible characters: kind, loving and afraid for their mother’s future. Sally enjoys having Laine nearby; this closeness brings significant unburdening between mother and daughter. Sally tells Laine the truth about her marriage, and Laine realizes she had made an incorrect assumption that she held against her mother for decades. Knowing the truth allows Laine to see her mother in a positive light. When Sally finally accepts that she’ll need help, it’s another successful outcome for our organizer.
- The Old Woman with the Knife: A Novel Posted in: Arts, Curmudgeons and Other Eccentric Characters, Fiction, Mortality, Mysteries and Thrillers, Women’s Lives
By Gu Byeong-mo — Hanover Square Press, 2022
It seems ageism in the workplace is rampant, even for contract killers like Horn Claw. At 65, Horn Claw knows she’s not as spry as she once was, but she still gets the job done, even as her co-workers dismiss or even bully her. Born in a small town in South Korea, then abandoned by her birth family, who couldn’t afford another child to raise, Horn Claw has little opportunity to earn a legal income, and she struggles to survive in a society that is cruel to the poor and female. When we meet her, she calls herself a “disease control specialist,” but the vermin she eliminates aren’t rats but unlucky humans, dispatched with a poison-tipped knife. She has lost a hand due to the job but keeps working; she has no friends or social life. Her work is all she knows. With her advancing years, she’s slowing down, is less accurate and is softening. An uncharacteristic sentimental act is a mistake that could prove fatal to this assassin. Will she prevail? We hope so. Gu Byeong-mo is an award-winning, South Korean author. Old Woman with the Knife is her first novel translated into English.
- Oh William!: A Novel Posted in: Arts, Families, Fiction, Midlife Crossings
By Elizabeth Strout—Random House, 2021
Elizabeth Strout is a favorite of ours. We loved Olive Kitteridge (2008) and My Name is Lucy Barton (2016); now we rejoin Lucy in Oh William!. Newly widowed and a successful writer in her 60s, Lucy has retained an amicable relationship with her first husband, the father of her two daughters. She accepts him now, warts and all, and the warts are not insignificant. But despite Lucy’s investigative nature, she’s yet to fully understand what makes WIlliam tick. The story develops from a newlyweds’ love through Lucy and WIlliam’s divorce over his serial philandering, to Lucy’s satisfying marriage to her second husband, while WIlliam is married and divorced twice more. Yet it’s Lucy whom William asks to join him on a road trip to Maine to investigate his vague ancestry. On the road together, both feeling vulnerable and alone, they have a chance to understand each other on new levels. Their journey is the heart of the novel—a story of regret, reflection, revelation of some surprising family secrets and, ultimately, the way love matures over time.
- The Reading List Posted in: Arts, Families, Fiction, Friendships
By Sara Nisha Adams–WIlliam Morrow, 2021
Aleisha is a disaffected 17-year-old, whose life consists of caring for her mentally ill mother and working at a small library, even though she’s never been much of a reader herself. When she happens upon a scrap of paper listing book titles, “just in case you need it,” she decides to work her way through the suggestions. Weighed down by her own issues, Aleisha is rude to a library patron, Mukesh Patel, a lonely widower living in a London suburb, simply going through the motions of daily life. A dressing down by her supervisor propels Aleisha to apologize to Mukesh and make a recommendation from this secret list. The books’ magic sparks a friendship. Mukesh shares his concerns about his granddaughter Priya’s solitary life, so Aleisha suggests ways for the two to bond, including sharing the book list. But when tragedy strikes Aleisha’s family, she pulls away from the Patels and from reading altogether. Can Mukesh use the life lessons gleaned in the shared pages to bring Aleisha back from despair? The Reading List is a true, book-lover’s book.
- Good Eggs: A Novel Posted in: Arts, Families, Fiction
By Rebecca Hardiman—Atria Books, 2021
Reading Good Eggs felt like listening to an Irish auntie spin a story: a bit of blarney, with the facts sometimes lost in the details. Since her husband died, 83-year-old Millie Gogarty has been living alone. She relies heavily on her unemployed son, Kevin, who is adjusting to being a stay-at-home dad to his four active children, one a real handful. A phone call from the local police interrupts Kevin’s rare escape to the pub; could it be his rebellious teen, AIdeen? No, Millie’s been caught shoplifting—again. Millie’s release is contingent on her accepting the help of a part-time caregiver, something she’s fought tooth and nail. The story takes unexpected, often hilarious turns as these characters hope for second chances. Millie is a spunky piece of work, for certain, but she’s smart, strong-willed and cunning. This is a feel-good story to curl up with. You’ll end up rooting for the whole Gogarty family.
- An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed Posted in: Arts, Curmudgeons and Other Eccentric Characters, Fiction, Humor, Mysteries and Thrillers
By Helene Tursten – Soho Crime, 2021
Add Swedish crime novelist Helene Tursten to your list of go-to Scandinavian authors alongside Fredrik Backman and Jonas Jonasson, both of whom have written books recommended in our reviews. The eponymous elderly lady is our old friend Maud, whom we met in An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good (2018). Maud’s simple desire is to live her life her way, in peace. Surely, at 88, she’s earned that. Yet Maud, known to resolve disputes by eliminating her adversaries, is followed by misfortune—and the body count around her continues to rise. One simply should not cross Maud, nor underestimate her, nor make assumptions based on her advanced years. Is she really hard of hearing and confused, or is it part of an act to evade the police? That walking stick? It may seem to aid her mobility, but she uses it to bash anyone who gets in her way, which they continually do, at their peril. In this book, Maud is avoiding the police as she heads off on a luxury vacation to South Africa. Her vigilante spirit is revived when she witnesses the assault of a young girl in an alley. Her actions play out in six connected, comical vignettes that expose Maud as a serial killer with a diabolical mind, who will leave you asking yourself if it’s so wrong to root for the bad guy.
- The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman: A Novel Posted in: Arts, Families, Fiction, Friendships
By Julietta Henderson—MIRA, 2021
There’s so very much to love about this uplifting, character-driven tale. Norman, age 12, has lost his best friend, Jax, who has died. His adoring mother, Sadie, and her coworker, Leonard, embark on a quest to help Norman fulfill his and Jax’s dream to compete at the country’s premier comedy competition, the Edinburgh Fringe. Friendless without Jax, Norman also decides he needs to find the father he never knew—but his mom isn’t even sure who he is. Sadie, a wounded soul with her own grief, is determined to help Norman process his monumental loss, but it’s only when 80-something Leonard agrees to join the quest that the threesome heads off. Leonard is the brains behind the trip; he brings the common sense, the computer savvy and a lifetime of useful skills, upon which Sadie and Norman draw time and time again. Leonard is the reason we recommend this book; he works as a custodian and bore the brunt of every ageist joke the boss could spew. There’s more to Leonard than meets the eye, but can he find a missing father? Nothing goes strictly according to plan, but throughout the odyssey, Norman Foreman, the “Little Big Man of Comedy,” gets a chance to shine.
- Should We Stay or Should We Go: A Novel Posted in: Arts, Fiction, Midlife Crossings, Mortality
By Lionel Shriver – Harper, 2021
In their 50s, Kay and Cyril both work in health care and have just watched the decade-long, agonizing demise of Kay’s once-brilliant father to Alzheimer’s. With firsthand professional and personal experience of the indignities of aging, they know the sacrifices families make as they stand by helplessly and watch a person die slowly. They make a pact to end their lives, together, at the age of 80. The next three decades pass and, lo, they’re at their use-by date. What happens next is revealed in a dozen different possibilities, brilliantly thought out. In one alternate universe, they end up in residential care where they’re neglected and forgotten; in another, at a posh facility where they’re treated like royalty. In yet another scenario, they choose cryogenics with return when they would be free of disease. But this is not a morbid collection of “what ifs.” It’s a thought-provoking, often humorous read on how we approach death and the choices we make. In other words, perfect for your book club.
- The Book of Two Ways: A Novel Posted in: Arts, Fiction, Midlife Crossings, Mortality
By Jodi Picoult – Ballantine Books, 2020
Death has always been a part of Dawn Edelstein’s life. It began with an early fascination with how ancient Egyptians embraced dying as a part of living. As a grad student in Egyptology, she met Wyatt Armstrong. They shared a passion for The Book of Two Ways, a series of hieroglyphics inscribed inside certain Egyptian coffins that mapped the path of the afterlife. That fervor brought them together romantically, and Dawn felt her life was becoming what it was meant to be. But when she was called to her mother’s death bed, Dawn abruptly found herself taking a different path.
Fifteen years later, she is married to a quantum physicist named Brian, raising a teenage daughter and working as a death doula. She guides clients through the process of dying, easing the transition from life, helping with everything from physical care to last wishes. She loves the work and she loves her family, but a strong connection with a new client stirs up buried memories and desires. She is torn between “what is” and “what if.” What if, after her mother’s death, she’d found a way to rejoin Wyatt in Egypt and resume both her career and their love affair?
The book begins with Dawn surviving a plane crash and questioning her mortality. She knows so much about dying—she just isn’t sure she’s an expert on living, and the time has come to take a good, long look at what is most important in her world. Sprinkled with snippets about Egyptian hieroglyphs and history, this novel will take you deep into the burial chambers of ancient kings and up into the mysteries of death. It will make you think about the path you are on now, and how you’ll feel about your choices when you face the inevitable.
- Exit Posted in: Arts, Fiction, Mysteries and Thrillers
By Belinda Bauer – Atlantic Monthly Press, 2020
Death is usually a grim subject, but Belinda Bauer’s new mystery is quite funny. Felix Pink, the protagonist of Exit (2020), volunteers as an Exiteer: he’s part of an underground organization that supports people who are terminally ill and have decided to take their own lives. Strictly speaking, nothing Felix does is illegal. He simply sits with clients as they wait to die. They use a painless method suggested by his organization, and he keeps them company so their families will know they’re not alone. Once they’re gone, he spirits away the evidence of suicide. Felix is a 75-year-old widower. He’s kind, conscientious, a neatnik and rule-follower. Most readers will be completely on his side as he goes on one of his missions, only to discover afterward that he’s sat with the wrong person and is implicated in a death that may be a mistake—or a murder. Bauer’s typically twisty mystery provokes lots of chuckles, thanks to her delightfully skewed point of view. And as older readers become privy to Felix’s thoughts about aging, they may wonder if Bauer has been reading their minds.
- The Thursday Murder Club: A Novel Posted in: Arts, Fiction, Friendships, Mysteries and Thrillers
By Richard Osman – Pamela Dorman Books, 2020
Every Thursday, four amateur sleuths meet to rehash unsolved crimes. They are an unlikely and quirky foursome: a nurse, a spy, a psychiatrist and a union activist, all residents of the Coopers Chase Retirement Village. Their differences are the strengths they bring to their detective work. To their utter delight, someone is murdered in their midst, a contractor with designs on expanding the community. The Murder Club has a real case! The police underestimate them and, careless about sharing their own knowledge of the crime, are bested by the club members at every turn. This witty whodunnit’s author—a British television celebrity—has depicted the protagonists, all 80 or nearing so, as intelligent and credible, not a feeble, frail or pitiable one among them. This story closes with plenty of room for the Thursday Murder Club to return. Let’s hope someone else gets killed.
- The Big Finish Posted in: Arts, Families, Fiction
By Brooke Fossey – Penguin Random House, 2020
In a complete reversal of the grandparent-escapes-care-facility theme, 19-year-old Josie breaks into Centennial, the assisted living facility where her grandfather, Carl, resides. No one is more surprised than his roommate, Duffy, a self-proclaimed “ass,” who believed he and Carl had no secrets. Except for a daughter and now a granddaughter living nearby? But there are more secrets, and Josie needs the help of these octogenarians. Josie arrives shoeless and reeking of alcohol, with only the clothes on her back and a black eye. She wants them to hide her for a week while she sorts things out. After years of stuffing his feelings of guilt and shame, Carl is willing to do anything to win Josie over, but Duffy knows they run the risk of getting caught and evicted to the dreadful nursing home down the street. As a recovered alcoholic himself, he’s been in Josie’s shoes—out of friends, out of options. With Duffy as reluctant leader, some of Centennial’s residents and staff conspire to detox Josie and give her recently departed mother a proper funeral. This is a big-hearted story of hijinks, unlikely friendships and the realization that we must face our truths and right our wrongs, no matter our age.
- All Adults Here: A Novel Posted in: Arts, Families, Fiction
By Emma Straub – Riverhead Books, 2020
In this saga of a family laden with secrets, Astrid, a 68-year-old widow, is the matriarch, living in the idyllic, upscale town of Clapham, NY. She’s opinionated and self-centered, but as she ages, she’s softening. Astrid witnesses a neighbor (she admits she never liked her) accidentally struck down and killed by a bus. The event dislodges a long-suppressed memory, which kick-starts her desire to come clean on a secret she’s been keeping from her three grown children. In Astrid’s wildly chaotic life, the secrets revealed are what make Astrid more fully actualized as a human being, not “simply” a wife, widow and mother. The siblings believe themselves to be close, but when secrets are confessed, one son reveals he felt he never measured up to Astrid’s expectations. The other son feels ill-equipped to raise his 13-year-old daughter after an incident at school and so sends her to live with Astrid. And the adult daughter, who raises goats nearby, is hiding the fact that she is pregnant by a donor. The truths make them come together as a more authentic version of their family. This is a delightful read, a reminder that it’s OK to become an adult in later life.
- Allie and Bea: A Novel Posted in: Arts, Families, Fiction, Friendships
By Catherine Ryan Hyde – Lake Union Publishing, 2017
This is the story of a friendship. Allie is a 15-year-old whose parents have just been jailed for tax fraud. Bea is an aging-into-poverty widow who’s lost what little she had left to a telephone scam. Bea is running scams of her own now just to stay afloat financially and keep gas in the van where she lives with her cat, and Allie runs away from a group home, only to find she is woefully unprepared to live outside the life of privilege she once knew. When their paths cross, trust is nonexistent, but they each have something to teach the other. As they travel the Pacific Coast Highway in the van, they use their street smarts to navigate the journey. As the kind people they meet along the way restore their faith in humanity, Allie and Bea forge a new sense of family. This novel would be a wonderful choice for a mother-daughter book club.
- The Last Trial Posted in: Arts, Families, Fiction, Mysteries and Thrillers
By Scott Turow – Grand Central Publishing, 2020
Loyal fans of Scott Turow will remember meeting attorney Sandy Stern 34 years ago in Presumed Innocent (1986), a novel that launched Turow’s career and, some claim, created the genre that we now call “legal thrillers.”
Alejandro “Sandy” Stern, now 85, has decided to retire. For his final case, his client is a long-time friend, Kiril Pafko, a 78-year-old, Nobel Prize-winning doctor who discovered the very drug, g-Livia, that put Stern’s own cancer in remission. But some patients developed a fatal reaction, and the Feds accused Pafko of a range of crimes, from insider trading to murder.
Turow, 71, a practicing attorney who takes mostly pro bono cases himself, explains the courtroom drama for laymen, but in The Last Trial what he does best is show a character who was once in total command of the courtroom accepting both the good and bad of his own aging. Stern has an occasional blip of memory loss and a fatigue that isn’t about sleep. He works alongside his accomplished daughter, Marta. Recognizing her father’s shortcomings, she silently signals him if he’s veering off the mark. Marta decides this will be her last trial as well, which likely makes it a little easier for her father, although they both want to retire with a win.
Readers are introduced to another family member. Despite a prolonged and confounding adolescence, Stern’s granddaughter, Pinky, shows real promise as a private investigator, leaving us to think court may not be adjourned after all.
- The Love Story of Missy Carmichael Posted in: Arts, Fiction, Friendships, Women’s Lives
By Beth Morrey – G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2020
Millicent “Missy” Carmichael is struggling with loneliness and lacks a sense of self-worth. She wasn’t always so glum; she earned an underutilized degree in Classics from Cambridge, married an academic revered in his field and raised two children. She lives alone at 79, estranged from her daughter for an argument she now regrets, and her son and beloved grandchild live a continent away. She rarely leaves her big, bland house—she’s got her books and her sherry, after all. But she forces herself to a daily walk in the park near her home and is surprised to find she’s soon recognized by some of the regulars. Her cynicism for life is overpowered by the kindness shown by a woman with a child the same age as her grandson, and Missy is embraced by the woman’s park friends. This is further enhanced when Missy reluctantly agrees to foster a mongrel named Bobby. Beyond simple companionship (Bobby is a good listener), Missy is forced to go out regularly to walk and finds the dog to be a social lubricant, if only to explain why a female dog was named Bobby in the first place. Each of the characters plays a role in making Missy see her true value as a human being and gives her a sense of purpose and belonging long absent from her life. Filled with wry laughter and deep insights, The Love Story of Missy Carmichael is a story that shows us it’s never too late to forgive yourself and, just as important, that we should never discount the power of community.
- How the Penguins Saved Veronica Posted in: Arts, Families, Fiction
By Hazel Prior – Berkley, 2020
Veronica McCreedy is a fussy, opinionated, 85-year-old woman living in Scotland in a multimillion-dollar home with her carer, Eileen. She’s convinced herself she likes the solitude when, in fact, she’s quite lonely. One of her few escapes is television documentaries, particularly one about a colony of penguins and their researchers in Antarctica. As Veronica obsesses, Eileen finds a box of nearly forgotten diaries that remind Veronica of the secrets she has kept locked away for most of her adult life—not the least of which is that she had a son, who, in turn, had a son. Eileen helps Veronica find and meet grandson Patrick, who never knew his grandmother existed.
Still, Veronica is much more interested in the penguins than in Patrick; she informs the research crew (buttering them up with promises of inheritance) that she’s coming to stay with them. Once on the ice, she becomes keenly aware of not only the penguins but of the environmental impact of climate change on their habitat. After reading Veronica’s diaries, Patrick joins her in Antarctica. Through their shared history and time spent together with the penguins, the pair finally forge a relationship and a possible future as a family.
This is the story of a woman who chases her sense of purpose and her family ties while never misplacing her independence or her personal desire to leave the world a better place. We need more Veronicas right now.
- Have You Seen Luis Velez? Posted in: Arts, Fiction, Friendships
By Catherine Ryan Hyde – Lake Union Publishing, 2019
Raymond is an untethered, lonely 16-year-old. His parents divorced and each remarried, leaving him feeling like an outsider. He’s biracial and feels neither Black enough nor white enough. His only friend from school has moved, and the feral cat he sees on the streets is unreliable. One day a neighbor he has seen but doesn’t know emerges from her apartment and forlornly asks, “Have you seen Luis Velez?” This neighbor is Mildred Gutterman, who is 92 and blind. She lives alone and has been relying on the kindness of Luis Velez to keep her living in her apartment. Now Luis has stopped coming around and Mildred is down to her last meal.
Mildred and Raymond start a conversation that leads to a most unusual friendship. Raymond gingerly steps into the role of helpmate and decides to find Luis Velez for Mildred, a choice so out of his comfort zone that it challenges not only his shyness but his belief that people are unkind and unsympathetic. The lovely, intergenerational friendship between the pair is bolstered by how Raymond learns to see what Mildred sees despite her blindness. This is a feel-good story, simple yet deep, and just the uplift we all need right now.
- Akin Posted in: Arts, Families, Fiction
By Emma Donoghue – Little, Brown and Company, 2019
Emma Donoghue follows her best seller Room (2011) with this absolute gem. Approaching his 80th birthday, widower Noah is preparing for a trip to France when a telephone call changes everything. Noah learns he’s the closest relative of Michael, his 11-year-old great-nephew whom he has never met, and who is in immediate need of a place to live to stay out of foster care. Life with a tween is as foreign to Noah as the South of France is to Michael. The two have lives so far removed from one another’s that it’s hard to imagine the gap can be bridged. We’re drawn to Noah and his struggle to do the right thing; he decides to take Michael to Nice. Noah’s internal dialogue is touching and real; his consultations with his late wife are bittersweet. Michael, displaced and now grieving multiple losses, can be exasperating. At times, Noah’s patience seems downright heroic, but it’s when he loses his composure with this troubled boy that he’s most relatable. They need to learn to trust each other to get to a place of acceptance. It’s not a straight line, but it’s a helluva trip, and we readers love traveling along with them.
- 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?