It is rare to find a novel which begins long after other novels end.
Often, elderly character are supporting characters who might be portrayed as good and wise or foolish, ranging from Austen’s Mrs. Bennet to Tolkein’s Gandalf. These characters can seem to lack complex inner lives of their own. Of course, if fiction is to do its job, to educate and broaden the understanding, critical thinking, imagination, and sympathies of the reader, there is no reason why any one age group should be sold short. For a long time now, I have thought that younger adults could benefit from by reading novels with older main characters, for surely they must be some of the most fascinating characters available. Over the years, I have read many novels which starred heroes and antiheroes who were past their prime. Here I am going to discuss three books and two trilogies which have motivated me to not only read more novels featuring older characters, but to also never underestimate the complexity of older adults.
Foreign Affairs, Alison Lurie
This delicious book is the story to two American academics doing research in England. One, fifty-four year old Vinnie, researches children’s schoolyard rhymes. The other, a young man Fred, researches the poems of John Gay. Lurie weaves a very subtle and fascinating story about the lies Americans tell themselves about England, and vice versa. Vinnie, who is from a sleepy New England town, has convinced herself that she “belongs” in England and relishes her times there. Her perceptions of herself and her desires are turned upside down when she begins an unplanned affair with a brusk American, complete with cowboy books and midwestern manners. Lurie writes two love stories – Vinne’s and Fred’s. Both are completely unexpected, but it was Vinnie’s story which threw me for a loop.
Winter Solstice, Rosamunde Pilcher
Pilcher is what I like to call a classic mid-century modern British author. She wrote novels about the provincial British life with all the warmth, practicality, and good humor of a Frank Lloyd Wright house. Many of her books deal with older characters, but I am particularly fond of Winter Solstice’s Elfrida. Elfrida is an older woman, set in her ways, and unmarried. She recently retired and moved into a small cottage set up just to her liking. When her neighbor’s wife and daughter die suddenly in a car accident, her settled life is shaken up. Her adventure with widower Oscar takes her up north to Scotland, where a cold winter changes her life forever. Elfrida is not particularly likeable. She is a little selfish, settled in her ways, unwilling to be helpful, hesitant to be honest and open. But it is her flaws, all side effects of a long life alone and on the defensive, that make the book such an interesting read.
Gilead, Home, Lila, Marilynne Robinson
This trilogy by Robinson (who I discussed here) has become a trio of modern American classics. The first, Gilead, is the one that most fits the theme of this post, but all three tie into it. Gilead is the account of the life of John Ames, an elderly pastor from Iowa. Ames both married and became a father late in life, and the book is his memories of his father and grandfather. He hopes to pass these stories down to his young son, who will most likely not remember him. The second, Home, tells the story of Ames’ friend Reverend Boughton and his two adult children who move home (concurrent to Gilead) in a Prodigal Son-style story. The third novel, Lila, tells the story of Ames’ young wife and views the other elderly characters through her eyes. These novels are revolutionary in a quiet way, as Robinson is a master of character development within adulthood, focusing on times in a character’s life that other authors might not highlight. The story takes place after and around the action to create a narrative of futility and reflection, borne from the Ames’ and Boughton’s long lives and experiences.
Quartet in Autumn, Barbara Pym
Pym is another one of those mid-century British gems who wrote about fifteen novels in her career. Quarter in Autumn, which is succinctly described in the title, features four coworkers in the autumn of their lives. This quartet of men and women are nearing retirement age and beginning to plan their “autumns” together. Letty is planning to move into a cottage with an old friend, but when her friend makes a late-in-life marriage, Letty needs to reconsider not just her retirement plans, but what she wants to make of the later years of her life. The structure of the novel is similar to a coming-of-age story, with a group of characters breaking forth into a world unknown – only the circumstances that are different. One of the last novels written by Pym, it is shows her maturity and her experience with the different ways that people approach and accept growing older.
Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat, Last Friends, Jane Gardam
I am sure I have a bad habit by now of calling every book I reference a masterpiece, but this trilogy truly is one. And unlike the rest of the books on this list, the series is relatively unknown. Old Filth is the story of Edward Feathers, an eighty year old widower settled in Dorset, who reflects on his life as an expatriate in Hong Kong, his marriage to his wife Betty, and the friends he made and lost during his life. Told neither quite in the present nor the past, Old Filth moves smoothly through Edward’s life. The Man in the Wooden Hat is approached similarly but focuses on Edward’s wife. Neither a sequel nor prequel, this novel tells Betty’s life from her perspective. And the last novel, Last Friends, is the story of Edward’s best-friend-turned-enemy Terry Veneering as he reaches the end of his life. This series is a story of a fifty year marriage, told from back to front, from old age into youth, spanning three artful novels.
These stories of bachelors, widows, and late-in-life romances are some of the best and most memorable novels that I have read in the last eight years. If you are looking for thoughtful stories to stretch your perceptions of marriage and love in the later years of life, look no further. And if that’s not what you are looking for, maybe look again and pick one up.
Sarah V Diehl