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This list of fiction books about aging and end of life comes at the request of a subscriber to this blog who was searching for books with older protagonists who were facing the issues that come with advanced age.
It was an idea I hadn’t thought of before, but once I started looking into it, I realized that fully developed older characters are somewhat rare in literature.
Search for books about aging and dying, and you get plenty of nonfiction reflections and guides, but few recommendations for the reader who finds more meaning in fictional stories.
Treatment of Aging and Elderly Characters in Fiction
It occurred to me while pulling together this list that, when it comes to older characters, we’re often subjected to a single trope for each gender: the feisty old woman or the dear, wise old man.
It’s not that people like this don’t exist, or that they can’t be enjoyable in literature. It’s that the range of personalities, emotions, and life experiences are just as vast for older characters as they are for young–and that should be reflected.
The list of books below includes characters who are aging in different ways. Some are not very old but are just starting to come to terms with their more advanced age. Others are nearing the end of their lives.
Some are alone, while others are married, wrapped up in life-affirming friendships, or starting new romances. Some are feeling the urge for one last great adventure, while others are reflecting on the lives they’ve lived and their regrets, successes, and legacies.
There is no one way to age, and none of us knows exactly how or where we will find ourselves at that stage of life. But the “third act” of life is one worth reflecting on in literature, and I hope we’ll see more like some of the recent books below.
Novels About Old Age, Aging, and End of Life
Rebecca Winter is a 60-year old photographer, still famous but no longer sought-after, who moves to a rural town in an attempt to save money by renting her Manhattan apartment. She feels lost until she begins spending time with a local roofer, twenty years her junior, and finds a photography project in the mysterious crosses and mementos scattered through the woods. Rebecca’s feelings of invisibility and obsolescence will resonate with many women approaching their third act, and Quindlen is always a solid choice for excellent prose and depth of feeling.
This recent Pulitzer Prize-winning novel tells the story of Arthur Less, a failing novelist on the brink of turning 50–not as old as many of the characters on this list, but a pivotal age for this character. When he receives an invitation to his former lover’s wedding, he embarks on an around-the-world journey to avoid the event. On this journey, Less ruminates on his past and dreads his future as an aging, single gay man (he feels there is no precedent for this) and failed writer. Less is both frustrating and endearing, a bit bumbling, and above all, certain of his own failures. Those around him rarely disabuse him of these notions, but they also see more in him that he sees in himself. This book won’t be for everyone–it’s light on plot and heavy on wandering musings, and can be slow at times–but for a reader in the right mood it’s a sweet and sometimes funny read. Certain parts had me laughing out loud.
Crossing to Safety follows the lives, loves, and aspirations of two couples moving through life together in friendship and marriage. I haven’t yet read this one, but its journeys through life’s hardships and end-of-life reflections on relationships through ages make this an apt choice.
This book about a 79-year-old woman who decides to rob a bank along with four of her friends may fall a little into the “feisty old woman” trope, but it does sound like a fun ride. Feeling constrained by the rules imposed on them by their care home, the group of friends makes a plan to fund the exciting life of their dreams–and stand up for other residents who feel similarly constrained. I expect this book to offer plenty of laughs, but it also speaks to the limited lives that elderly are often relegated to–and to their desire to continue to be relevant and sometimes even adventurous.
Abby and her husband Red are spending another lovely evening on the porch of their family home, telling their familiar love story to their children and grandchildren. But this time is different: Abby and Red are aging, and the family must start to decide how they’ll be cared for in their old age, as well as what will happen to the home built by Red’s father. This book promises to be reflective of lives well-lived and tinged with sadness as the family must face the inevitable difficult decisions and coming losses.
Ruth is a widow living alone in an isolated beach house, and one day Frida shows up claiming to be a care worker sent by the government. Ruth lets her in, and suddenly she begins to question her own perceptions, her memories, and whether Frida can be trusted. I chose this book because it seems to speak to the vulnerability of some elderly people to be preyed upon, particularly if they are isolated.
On New Years Eve, 1984, 85-year-old Lillian Boxfish sets out for a party in Manhattan. Wrapped in her mink coat, she walks over 10 miles around the city, meeting all manner of characters and reflecting on a life filled with excitement, challenges, and romance. Once one of the most successful women in advertising in the country, she has lived a life of excitement and witnessed the changing city through the decades. Hailed as a “love letter to city life in all its guts and grandeur,” Lillian may have aged, but like the city she loves, she hasn’t changed entirely.
When recently retired Harold Fry steps out to his mailbox, he is surprised to find a letter from a woman he hasn’t seen in twenty years. Queenie Hennessy is in hospice and has written to say goodbye. At the spur of the moment, Harold decides to say his own goodbye in person and walk 600 miles to the hospice where Queenie resides, holding onto the hope that, as long as he keeps walking, Queenie will live.
In this parallel story to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Queenie Hennessy takes her own journey as she faces the end of her life. While Harold is walking, Queenie is writing, reflecting on her past, her choices, and her secrets. This poignant pairing is unique in its multiple perspectives on aging and end of life–one facing the end of her life and the other facing loss and secrets he never knew.
In yet another story about an elderly protagonist taking a walk, 82 year old Etta decides she must see the ocean–3,232 kilometers away. She embarks on her walk with a rifle, some chocolate, and her best boots. Soon she is joined by James, a coyote. Her husband Otto finds a note saying she will try to remember to come back. Their neighbor Russell, in love with Etta his whole life, insists on finding her. As each takes their own journey, they grapple with memories, regrets, pasts they can’t change, and futures they still hope for.
Another story from Haruf set in Holt, Colorado, this one brings Addie Moore and her neighbor Louis Waters together. Both widowed with grown children far away, they find companionship and understanding of the lives they’ve lived and the futures they still want to have.
Ove is a solitary curmudgeon who is set in his ways and unreserved in his criticism of anyone who crosses his path. But behind his rough exterior is a sweet, sad backstory and a soft-hearted man committed to his morals who is about to have his world rocked by several people (and a cat) who refuse to be held off by a few cranky words. Ove is by turns funny, sad, and heartwarming. It’s delightful to watch his persistent new friends chip away at his hard shell to find the kind man lurking within.
What other books would you add to this list?