95.3 / 88.5 FM Grand Rapids and 95.3 FM Muskegon
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Move over, senior center — these 5 books center seniors

Meghan Collins Sullivan

I have always loved the company of spunky older women, whether in books, movies or in person. What they have to say about their lives and times, their passions, and mortality strikes me as far more interesting than worries about finding the perfect job, husband — or handbag. (My master's thesis, written in my early 20s, was a collection of stories titled Old Ladies and Other Philosophers.)

Now that I'm older myself, I have become increasingly aware of a growing body of fiction about women of a certain age — and there's nothing limp or lame about any of it. Many of the writers I've been reading for decades have turned their attention to the so-called golden years.

The books below all concern women, ages 60 to over 90, who fully intend to seize the day and enjoy life while they can. These are characters who refuse to go gentle into that good night. They're still sharp and ready to surprise.

Leaving by Roxana Robinson

/ W. W. Norton & Company
W. W. Norton & Company

In Leaving, out on Feb. 13, Roxana Robinson explores the moral ramifications of jumping at the chance of long-deferred happiness — even if it's at the expense of others.

When Sarah Watson, a museum curator, and Warren Jennings, the college boyfriend she dropped suddenly nearly four decades earlier, run into each other in New York at the opera, their old flame is rekindled. She's long divorced from the man for whom she left Warren, and content with the life she has made for herself on a beautiful property in northern Westchester. He's a successful architect practicing out of Boston who has struggled in a marriage to a woman he finds shallow and uninteresting.

Leaving, which chronicles the couple's evolving feelings during months of hotel trysts, is poised to fuel many a book group discussion. Sarah is at first ashamed that she is seeing a married man and worried that she is betraying "the sisterhood." But as their relationship blossoms, her "moral landscape" shifts and she reasons that "it's not her responsibility to protect Warren's marriage."

As for Warren, after reconnecting with Sarah, his marriage feels increasingly like a prison. He believes that happiness is a right, and that it is his right to leave his marriage. He also feels that it is not too late for him and Sarah.

His wife and daughter vehemently disagree. They find his behavior "morally unacceptable" and "unspeakably cruel." His daughter threatens him: "If you divorce Mom, I'll divorce you...utterly...You will never see your grandchildren...I will never forgive you."

What starts as a story about rekindled, mature love — his chest hair turning as white as her roots — becomes an operatic tragedy about passion and honor. Frequent allusions to Verdi's "Tosca" — the opera at which Warren and Sarah ran into each other — somewhat heavy-handedly foreshadow the devastating consequences of this affair.

Ana Turns by Lisa Gornick

/ Keylight Books
Keylight Books

Lisa Gornick's latest novel, Ana Turns, paints a vivid portrait of a stressed New Yorker on her 60th birthday. In the course of a single hectic day, Ana Koehl awakens to a poisonous email from her mother, joins her beloved nieces in a yoga class, meets her transitioning son to discuss the timing and funding of his bottom surgery, trysts with her lover, meets with a client in crisis, and has a long overdue heart-to-heart with her husband. All this before sitting down for a dinner celebration with her extended family.

Gornick's character is a "manuscript therapist," a sort of book doula who helps blocked writers overcome road-bumps in their literary projects, usually due to unresolved personal issues. She is also a devotee of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, an increasingly overused inspirational template for novelists seeking to capture the essence of a woman's life during the course a single day leading up to a party.

Ana's own life has no shortage of unresolved issues, including her relationships with her bitter mother and her sweet husband, an anesthesiologist whose self-treatment for a chronic back injury has sucked the life out of their marriage. But by the time she hears her family's toasts over dinner, Ana has come to some important realizations about her life.

Sixty is the new 50, right? Still plenty of time to right the ship. The takeaway in this briskly engaging novel is that it's important to focus on what really matters, and it's never too late to make changes

Mrs. Quinn's Rise to Fame by Olivia Ford

/ Pamela Dorman Books
Pamela Dorman Books

Olivia Ford's debut novel, Mrs. Quinn's Rise to Fame, is a sweet confection — a bit sticky with sentiment in parts, but worth the calories. It's a feel-good, "coming-of-old-age" tale about 77-year-old Jennifer Quinn, who decides to apply for a spot on the hit television show, "Britain Bakes." Thinking her chances are slim, she doesn't tell her husband; it's the second secret she's ever kept from him in their 59 years of marriage.

Jenny's bakes are closely tied to her memories, including unhappy ones she's suppressed for six decades. She's partial to old family recipes, which "contain little pieces of history, of nostalgia, and of people." But they also cause long buried feelings to bubble up, sometimes inconveniently.

Ford's tear-jerker takes us behind the scenes of the bake-off and tantalizes readers with mouth-watering treats like choux buns filled with coffee cream, and blackcurrant jam doughnuts dusted with elderflower sugar. Jenny quickly bonds with a fellow contestant, a gay architecture student named Azeez Patel whose recipes — mango cream and yuzu doughnuts and choux filled with smoked salmon and horseradish mousse — are as newfangled as hers are old-fashioned. Though the show's format is somewhat tweaked, classic lines and moments from The Great British Baking Show are sprinkled throughout, including one judge's deliberately teasing verdict: "I don't like them...I love them!"

The novel is liberally seasoned with moving, sometimes soggy-bottomed remarks about what makes a happy marriage (kindness!), as well as tart observations about ageism. Asked why she applied to the show, Jenny says, "It's sometimes easy to feel left behind at my age, as if the world has a future and you have no place in it...but I hope to discover that there is meaning and adventure still to be found."

Readers are sure to eat up this delicious paean to pursuing one's dreams at every age.

Fellowship Point by Alice Elliott Dark

/ S&S/ Marysue Rucci Books
S&S/ Marysue Rucci Books

In Alice Elliott Dark's beautifully written Fellowship Point, now available in paperback, two women, lifelong friends recently turned 80, tussle over the future of the Maine vacation property that their great-grandfathers, along with some Quaker friends from Pennsylvania, established more than 125 years earlier. Fellowship Point includes a treasured 35-acre wildlife sanctuary on what is discovered to be the site of an Abenaki campground. A local developer has hatched plans to build a resort on this hallowed land, which he hopes to lure shareholders to sell with the promise of an economic windfall.

Although the two women share privileged backgrounds, their values have diverged. Agnes Lee is a stridently independent writer who has never married. Under her own name, she has authored a series of popular children's adventures about a plucky 9-year old girl. But she published her acclaimed adult novels under a pseudonym, which enabled her to write critically about women from her tony social set — including her friend Polly Wister. In Agnes' opinion, Polly has sold herself short by becoming a dutiful wife and mother who defers to her self-important husband and money-hungry eldest son on every subject, including the issue of developing Fellowship Point.

With a mystery at its core, Fellowship Point is filled with absorbing plot twists along with reflections on friendship, stewardship, aging, independence, and responsibility. It takes on big subjects, such as caring for the people and places we love, but also letting down one's guard and opening oneself up to different ways of interacting with the world. Like many of these novels featuring older heroines, it is a lovely affirmation that change and growth are possible at any age.

Ladies' Lunch: and Other Stories by Lore Segal

/ Melville House
Melville House

In Lore Segal's sharp-witted Ladies' Lunch stories, many of which first appeared in The New Yorker, a group of old friends continue their decades' long tradition of meeting around each other's tables every month or so to discuss what's on their minds, be it King Lear or memory lapses.

These longtime New Yorkers originally hail from Tehran, Vienna, County Mayo, California, and the Bronx. Ruth is a retired lawyer, Farah a retired doctor. Bridget is an author who still writes every morning. Ilka, like Segal, was a Kindertransport child whose evacuation from Vienna to escape the Nazis still haunts her. Bessie often has to miss lunch because her husband is increasingly unwell. Bessie's friends try to be sympathetic, but they "had little use for the one husband still alive, a man of large property and the wrong politics."

As they approach and pass 90, the ladies still try to maintain the Twenty Minute Rule, which limits talk about physical woes — hips, knees, eyes, teeth, balance, appetite. But with time, "the old problem of shuffling off this mortal coil" and "how to prevent the inevitable," by which they mean "any of the scenarios we would rather die than live in," come to dominate their conversation. So, too, do schemes to rescue, or at least visit, their poor friend Lotte, whose well-meaning sons, in their determination to keep their mother safe, have moved her upstate into a "nice" assisted living place. Lotte, furious, reports scathingly on the banality of conversations with her new table-mates, which are mainly limited to the names and ages of grandchildren.

Segal, born in 1928, captures the insults of old age with wry humor. Wakes, funerals, and shivahs are deemed "the cocktail parties of the old." Over a Zoom lunch during the pandemic, Bessie offers this advice about dealing with memory problems: "The trick will be to not embark on a sentence one hasn't the vocabulary to get to the end of."

And more ...

If you're looking for other vivacious older heroines, you can't go wrong with Elizabeth Strout'sOlive, Again, about acerbic-tongued Olive Kitteridge, or her recent novels about widowed Lucy Barton, Oh William! andLucy By the Sea. Sigrid Nunez's latest novel, The Vulnerables, and Shelby Van Pelt's Remarkably Bright Creatures offer very different views of older women living on their own — with the morale-boosting assists of animal friends. In her charming novels, They May Not Mean To, But They Doand Künstlers in Paradise, Cathleen Schine demonstrates that she has her finger firmly planted on the still-vital pulse of widows determined to maintain their independence in the face of their adult children's worries. And in her recent collection, Roman Stories, Jhumpa Lahiri paints moving portraits of several women who consider how they came to the transcontinental, solitary lives they're leading.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.