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.
- 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?
- A Man Called Ove Posted in: Curmudgeons and Other Eccentric Characters, Widows and Widowers
By Fredrik Backman – Atria, 2014
A Man Called Ove is a debut novel that will charm you like no other. Ove is estranged from his best friend, let go from his job and recently widowed from a wife he adored. He’d kill himself if everyone would just let him be. But that plan is foiled by new neighbors, local rule-breakers and curious children—even the cat interferes. So it could not get any more exasperating for Ove. This is a feel-good story that suggests it’s possible to hit the curve ball life throws at you, if you just get out of your own way. A more loveable curmudgeon may not exist. Fans of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and Olive Kitteridge looking to venture outside familiar American authors, your search is Ove-r. Backman’s Swedish bestseller has been translated into 25 languages. Read it in at least one of them.
- Florence Gordon Posted in: Curmudgeons and Other Eccentric Characters, Women’s Lives
By Brian Morton – Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014
Florence Gordon is an aging feminist and academic, an intolerant woman who wants to be left alone to write a memoir she thinks no one will read. Arriving at a restaurant to find a surprise 75th birthday party (her own), she leaves; she’d rather write. Yet solitude eludes her as her daughter-in-law and granddaughter arrive in town, and Florence is sucked into the drama that is her son’s fragile marriage. Her disdain for her son’s wife is met with adoration, although her granddaughter, distant but curious, can’t quite figure her grandmother out. And now, unimaginably, book reviews dub her a national treasure, and she is jettisoned into book tours and speaking engagements. She deals with a health crisis, her ex-husband’s envy of her success, a hip young editor, and her granddaughter as her assistant. Acerbic enough to make you wince, while witty and whip smart, Florence Gordon is a woman you will love, hate and remember.
- Moving Day: A Thriller Posted in: Mysteries and Thrillers
By Jonathan Stone – Thomas and Mercer, 2014
It’s a brilliant scam: uniformed thieves show up with a van, ahead of schedule, and pack up the house. When the actual movers arrive the next day, all possessions are long gone. But this time, the crooks messed with the wrong man. Stanley Peke is a 72-year-old Holocaust survivor who as a child was forced to find his way alone in the woods when the Nazis left him orphaned and homeless. Peke has successfully buried his past: he works hard, lives well and invests wisely. Incensed and refusing to be victimized again, Peke channels that resilient boy to cross the country, humiliate the thief and reclaim a lifetime’s worth of possessions. Moving Day is a psychological thriller with intelligent characters in a harrowing plot that shows just how far a man will go to keep his treasures and his pride.
- The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared Posted in: Curmudgeons and Other Eccentric Characters, Humor
By Jonas Jonasson – Hyperion, 2012
Impetuous Allan Karlsson dodges his centennial birthday celebration by escaping out the window of his nursing home. Walking in slippers to the nearby bus depot, he picks up a suitcase that a stranger asked him to watch and heads off to begin another chapter in a life already filled with adventures, both good and bad. Hilarity ensues when Allan discovers the suitcase contains a large, ill-gotten fortune and the victim needs to get it back. Allan’s resourcefulness comes from a long life that afforded him the opportunity to see many world events unfold, recalled with Allan himself in the thick of them, not unlike Forrest Gump. His experiences include building a nuclear bomb, fighting in the Spanish-American War and preventing the assassination of Winston Churchill. This is a happy-go-lucky tale with zany characters (Einstein’s brother!), improbable circumstances (an elephant!) and the most outrageous centenarian you’ll likely meet.
- Rage Against the Dying Posted in: Mysteries and Thrillers
By Becky Masterman – Minotaur, 2013
Retired agent returns to action to seek the one that got away. Don’t be turned off by the familiar theme of this fast-paced thriller—there is plenty of originality and suspense to make it worthwhile. For starters, at 59, tiny, white-haired, former FBI agent Brigid Quinn defies ageist stereotyping, and her chutzpah alone makes this an entertaining read. When Quinn thinks evidence from a string of murders isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, she goes rogue to find the killer of her one-time protégé. As she also struggles to honor her commitment to her new husband and the life they’ve created, demons from her glory days keep interfering. Suspects abound, but Quinn’s obsession could cost her her marriage—or her life. You may find yourself hoping Quinn stays out of retirement for plenty of sequels. (Silver Century readers may be intrigued to know that the author met with a harsh rejection at first: an agent told her that “Nobody is interested in a woman older than 30.”)
- The Girl Next Door Posted in: Friendships, Mysteries and Thrillers
If you haven’t read anything by award-winning British mystery writer Ruth Rendell, wait no longer. You have plenty to choose from. When she died at 85, Rendell’s titles numbered about 70. In The Girl Next Door, there’s no mystery about whodunnit. We know from the beginning that in the 1930s a man got away with killing his wife while the neighborhood children, playing in an underground tunnel, seemed unaware of any crime being committed. Decades later and now in their 70s, the friends, who long ago had gone their separate ways, reunite at the news that a cookie tin containing bones from the hands of a man and woman has been unearthed in their secret tunnel by construction workers. Whose bones are they? Rendell deftly brings us into the life of each character. Together again, the childhood friends revisit alliances, disagree, fall in love and, yes, evolve. No one here is defined by their age. Brilliant, rich and anything but a traditional crime novel.
- The Woman Upstairs Posted in: Mysteries and Thrillers
By Claire Messud – Knopf, 2013
Nora is a schoolteacher in her early 40s; she has never married, and she feels invisible, discarded. And boy, is she angry. Is that because her life’s dream of becoming an artist took a backseat to her role as a devoted daughter? Called upon to advocate for a student, she falls in love with the boy’s family collectively and individually, each member awakening a part of Nora that had been dormant. Now she can see possibility where there was none. Nora imagines the boy as her own, the husband as her lover. Enamored with the boy’s mother, Nora shares a studio with her and creates art again. Her passion is unbridled until an unexpected event shatters Nora. A rich, psychological thriller about second chances gone awry.
- Telling the Bees Posted in: Mysteries and Thrillers
By Peggy Hesketh – Putnam, 2013
At one time the Bee Ladies next door were his only friends. Now, apiarist Albert Honig has been estranged from the beekeepers for two decades until the day he finds them dead in their home, a suspected burglary gone wrong. Told in the voice of octogenarian Albert, this mystery unfolds at a gentle, hypnotic pace. Having lived his entire life among the bees, he has only his knowledge of apiculture to try to make sense of this tragedy. Alone with regrets for the friendship’s demise, he continues to wonder and reflect long after the police move on. Why would anyone rob these 80-year-old Bee Ladies? Beekeeping for the collection of honey has been a pastime for centuries and is still popular for city dwellers and country folk alike. Embedded in this mystery is a plethora of bee lore. If you are (or know) a beekeeper or ever wondered about the fascinating life of the honeybee, Telling the Bees will “bee” right up your alley.
- An Available Man Posted in: Love Stories, Widows and Widowers
By Hilma Wolitzer – Ballantine Books, 2012
Edward Schuyler is a 62-year-old widower whose family members secretly put him back in the dating pool with a personal ad. Edward is still grieving the loss of his beloved Bee, not ready to get into the social scene, content to putter with his 15-year-old dog and to check on his 90-year-old mother-in-law. When he does decide to try courtship again, blind dates, fix-ups and false starts leave Edward unfulfilled. Then, the woman who left him at the altar many lifetimes ago contacts him out of the blue and Edward wrestles with trusting her again. The story convincingly incorporates the nuances of dating after losing a life partner and the stumbling blocks to risking love a second time around. The Schuyler family’s dynamics are believable and the story is a pleasant glimpse into later-life dating from a man’s point of view, but this is a satisfying love story at any age.