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.
- 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.
- Intelligence: A Novel of the CIA Posted in: Mysteries and Thrillers
Who doesn’t enjoy a good spy story? Susan Hasler is a veteran of the counter-intelligence system and captures with chilling realism a terrorist plot as it unfolds at the local ballpark. The daily politics of working for the government are spelled out as only an insider might know them. We meet the team that tries to save the day—and their jobs—while walking the political line. An affair between two 60-somethings is discovered by this group and the angst of the colleagues-turned-lovers is portrayed refreshingly, with both tenderness and realism. The book is a nice change from others in this genre usually written from the male point of view. Read Intelligence for the edge-of-your-seat thrills and applaud Hasler for making her midlife characters dignified and authentic.
- Turn of Mind Posted in: Mysteries and Thrillers
Did she or didn’t she? This story of a 64-year-old woman with dementia is a page turner, so deftly written that you are drawn in from the start. Jennifer White is a retired surgeon suspected of killing her best friend, with whom she had a lifelong love-hate relationship. When we meet Jennifer, she is living at home with a full-time caregiver, and her memory is deteriorating quickly. While all clues point to Jennifer as the killer, the complex personalities of her son and daughter make the verdict anything but a slam dunk. Despite the fact that the fingers of the victim were severed with Jennifer’s scalpel—and Jennifer was seen leaving her friend’s home on the day of the murder—reasonable doubt remains. LaPlante allows us to slip into the abyss of dementia with Jennifer, who can no longer say with any certainty if she is, in fact, innocent. Achingly realistic, tragic and haunting, this book will stay with you for a very long time.
- 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.
- Our Souls at Night Posted in: Fiction, Friendships, Love Stories, Midlife Crossings, Widows and Widowers
By Kent Haruf – Knopf, 2015
If you are one of the lucky ones who has read award-winning author Kent Haruf (Plainsong, Eventide, Benediction), you’re familiar with his gift for making the simple profoundly rich. As with his other novels, this one takes place in the small town of Holt, CO. Addie Moore, a widow, and widower Louis Waters, both live alone; they know one another by sight, but not well. It is surprising, then, when Addie knocks on Louis’s door and suggests that, nighttime being so hard to bear alone, they simply sleep together. Sweetly awkward at first, their companionship blooms and they wrestle with and sort out their futures, not without disparaging neighbors and family interference. It’s tender, it’s funny. It’s one of those small novels that lives big in your heart and stays with you. A grand finale, indeed, for Haruf passed away before this gem was published.
- 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.
- The Sense of an Ending Posted in: Arts, Fiction, Friendships
Winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, this profound novel is about a man forced to look back at an uncomfortable time in his life and ask himself if he is who he thinks he is. Tony Webster, now in his 60s, considers his life settled. He has a good relationship with his family; he is comfortable and at peace. He is quite surprised to find that a woman he once met only briefly—the mother of an old lover from school—has bequeathed him some money and a diary. Along with this gift reemerges the former lover with her version of that time in their lives. Her account makes Tony question the veracity not only of his memories but his self-image. What other memories has he finessed to the point of distortion? This tale is a provocative, psychological mystery—one might be tempted to read its 160 pages in one sitting. Don’t rush. Barnes has chosen each word thoughtfully for us to savor, and then to read again.
- The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper Posted in: Widows and Widowers
By Phaedra Patrick – Pub MIRA, 2016
A year after his wife, Miriam’s, passing, Arthur Pepper decides it’s time to remove her things from the closet. Married for 40 years, Arthur is bereft and barely functioning, relying on routine and solitude to pass the days—he even hides from a well-meaning neighbor. When he finds an expensive-looking charm bracelet tucked into a pair of Miriam’s boots, Arthur is confused. He’s certain he’s never seen it before, and Miriam was not the type to wear jewelry anyway. Or was she? Arthur calls what looks like a phone number on one of the charms, setting himself on a quest, using the bracelet as a guide, to unlock the mystery. While uncovering the secrets his wife kept, Arthur learns much about himself and comes back to the land of the living with family, friends and community. You’re going to root for sweet Arthur all the way when you read this feel-good story.
- Lone Wolf Posted in: Families, Mortality
By Jodi Picoult – Atria, 2012
In her 19th novel, New York Times best-selling author Jodi Picoult once again looks at a family in the throes of a moral dilemma. Luke Warren lived in the wild for two years, studying wolves; the experience changed him, and that ultimately tore the Warrens apart. Now, a car accident leaves him dependent on life support. Should his family pull the plug? The question pits Luke’s teenage daughter, Cara, who feels she knows Luke’s wishes, against her older brother, Edward, who has been estranged from the family for six years. Always expect the unexpected with Picoult, who—in her trademark style of giving voice to all who are involved and showing every side of an issue—challenges us to think about end-of-life decisions and to consider who will speak for us when our time comes.
- The Middlesteins: A Novel Posted in: Families
By Jami Attenberg – Grand Central Publishing, 2012
When food is a substitute for love, what happens to the family? Richard Middlestein has just left Edie, his wife of 40 years, unwilling to abide any longer her lifelong addiction to food. Overweight since her Holocaust-surviving mother placated her with warm bread, Edie has every health condition associated with obesity. Despite dire admonitions from doctors, she shows no signs of compliance. The grown Middlestein children are distraught over their father’s abandonment. Contemptuous, often-inebriated daughter Robin sees for the first time how devastating her mother’s relationship with food has become. Henpecked son Lenny wants to keep the peace, while his rail-thin wife refuses Richard access to his spoiled grandchildren. Each deals with the fallout in ways that manage to be simultaneously funny and pitiful. The tale of the Middlesteins is fiction, but the message hits a hard note of truth in our weight-conscious culture.
- 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.