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.
- 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.
- 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!