BOOK CLUB: 12 Must-Read Novels That Celebrate Aging

August 20, 2021

Pop into your local library or favorite bookstore and you’ll find no shortage of books that encapsulate the passion, excitement, and romance of youth. When we see old age in fiction, the literary trope is typically constricted to brittle bones, blue rinses, and bad fashion. The elderly personas seem to follow a trend that depicts them in a way that makes the reader pity them and ultimately, makes younger generations dread old age.


As anyone who has reached their winter years knows, just because you’ve reached the third act of life, it doesn’t mean your world is confined to dentures, dementia, and deafness. Each life is a universe of its own, rich with stories that make a person who they are. Certain authors recognize this and illuminate characters who have not only lived full lives but continue to thrive throughout their golden years. They explore the hopes and fears, the nostalgia and regrets as well as the love, passion, and excitement that come alongside growing old.


For this month’s Book Club, we’re diving into works of fiction that bring brilliant older characters to the forefront to remind ourselves that every era of life is magical in its own ways and old age is no end to life’s adventures or desire. In fact, it’s just as ripe and poetic as any other time in life and our top 12 picks reflect just that, with characters so loveable, wise, and captivating amidst stories that’ll be hard to forget.


1. Mr. Loverman, Bernadine Evaristo

This is the story of Barrington Jedidiah Walker, or Barry to his inner circle. Antiguan-born and bred, the 74-year-old larger-than-life protagonist is a husband, father, and grandfather with one enormous life-changing secret.


For the past 60 years, Barry has been in a secret relationship with his childhood friend and soulmate, Morris. His wife, Carmel knows he’s been cheating on her, but to what degree she has no idea. With their marriage on the brink of collapse, Barry is left with some tough decisions to make.


Based in Hackney, Evaristo explores the older Caribbean community of East London, their attitudes, social observations, racial history, and the prejudice that co-occurs. Her use of dialect makes the characters’ voices as authentic as they come. Throughout the book, chapters alternate between 2010 Hackney and 1960 Antigua, both from Barry’s and Carmel’s perspectives. The story is equally heartbreaking and heart-warming, with the most mischievous, funny, memorable, and downright lovable character at its core.


2. These Foolish Things, Deborah Moggach

The book that inspired the box office hit 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel', These Foolish Things follows Ravi, a doctor, and his wife Pauline who are at their wits’ end when her father moves in with them after being banned from every nursing home he’s ever been to. Ravi and his businessman cousin Sonny, come up with a cunning plan to solve Ravi’s family woes while also making themselves a profit: start their own care home in India.

  

The narrative then moves to a mixed bag of British pensioners who move to Bangalore, India to the ‘luxury retirement community’. When they arrive, the place is not as they expected, yet they go on to discover a whole lot more, particularly about the things we truly need and things we don’t.


Within this novel, Moggach allows the reader to form a firm opinion on every character by writing from each perspective, covering each of their lives, along with their problems. The book highlights cultural differences, opposing attitudes and shared experiences while celebrating the twilight years, affirming that no one should be underestimated simply because of their age.


3. The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules, Catherina Ingelman-Sunderberg

This is a fun read all about growing old disgracefully! 79-year-old Martha Andersson has no intention of spending the rest of her days static in a care home. Instead, she is determined to find a way to fund a much more exciting lifestyle. 


Together with her four oldest pals, ‘The League of Pensioners’, Martha rebels against all of the rules imposed upon them – plastic food, early bedtimes, no exercise, locked indoors, etc. Once the group of friends catches fire in their bellies, their activities escalate, and they hatch a plan to commit the perfect crime with the aid of their zimmer frames and walking sticks.


Ingelman-Sunderberg has written a crime-thriller of sorts, one in which we hope the criminals triumph. Although this book is a hilarious, light-hearted bit of escapism, the underlying message does make us question the treatment of our elders.   


4. The Thursday Murder Club, Richard Osman

In a serene yet bustling retirement village, unlikely friends Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim, and Ron meet up every Thursday to indulge in vodka-laced cakes and investigate unsolved murders. Their previous careers provide them with the skills to solve the cold case files, but then a brutal homicide takes place on their very doorstep and the friends find themselves in the middle of their first live case.


Osman’s debut novel is incredibly witty and charming with a range of wonderfully likable, smart, and endearing characters. Although the mysteries are multi-layered and the book never fails to keep you engaged with its twists and turns, it is the characters that make this story completely captivating and delightfully entertaining.


5. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce

Harold is 65 and newly retired. One day he receives a letter from an old work colleague who once did him a favor he never thanked her for. In the letter, the friend reveals she is dying from cancer at the other end of the country. Harold writes back and leaves his wife, Maureen hoovering upstairs as he heads to the post box to send his reply. It is then that he decides to walk past the post box and all the way to his old friend, Queenie, holding onto the hope that as long as he keeps walking, his dear friend will live.


As Harold walks his 600-mile journey, he encounters all sorts of interesting individuals, touched by their kindness and haunted by their stories that elicit his own painful memories. As we travel with Harold across the country, we watch him open himself up to the world around him and rediscover himself as he finds he has so much to be thankful for.


Joyce’s writing stirs up all of the emotions, but most importantly it focuses on the value of friendship, humility, self-forgiveness, and human kindness. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a tender, sentimental read that will cause you to reflect upon your own life.


6. A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman

Ove is, from the outside, the cranky old man next door who is stuck in his ways. A man who has given up on life, spending his days visiting his late wife’s grave and enforcing block association rules that no one but himself cares for. He attempts to end his life but each day something happens that keeps him around. Still, he secludes himself from his neighbors, until one day a lively young family moves in next door and an unlikely friendship is formed.


Backman’s novel takes on themes of love, loss, family, and friendships along with both their risks and rewards. The storytelling is intricate, fascinating, and above all believably real and raw with a skill that makes it not only charming but philosophical and wise. While Ove’s story is tragic and touching, there are crumbs of comedy sprinkled throughout.


7. Tirra Lirra by the River, Jessica Anderson  

At the tender age of 70, after surviving both World Wars and the Great Depression, Nora Porteous returns home to the Australian town where she grew up. Her full life spans from a failed marriage in Sydney to living freely in London where she established herself as a seamstress and lived with two cherished friends through the most enjoyable years of her adult life.


As she returns home, she finds the neighborhood children have grown into kind-hearted adults who help her recover from pneumonia, and after time, let her in on the dark secrets of the neighborhood in years that have lapsed. With charm and satire, Nora recounts the tales of her life from her young desire to escape and where her marriage went wrong to the vanity that pushed her towards getting a facelift and one romantic sea voyage that has kept her afloat during the gloomier years.


This novel is narrated from Nora’s point of view with wry observations and regrets, although never nostalgic. Nora’s memory might not be as strong as it used to be, but her strength and resilience shine through. Anderson's words stir up contemplation on how every life is full of mysteries, secrets, and private thoughts.


8. The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane

Ruth, a widow, lives alone at her isolated beach house. Her two sons have grown up, moved countries, and had families of their own. They ring periodically, but her life is generally solitary and lonesome, leaving her spending a large amount of her time meditating on the past. 


One day a woman knocks on her door claiming to be a care worker sent by the government. None the wiser, Ruth lets her in. Suddenly Ruth begins to question her memories, perceptions, and whether Frida can actually be trusted.


This novel speaks to the vulnerability of some elderly, particularly those who are isolated and targeted to be preyed upon. Throughout her writing, McFarlane builds suspense until it becomes somewhat unbearable. She presses upon hope and possibility, and the things that can be overlooked when an empty life becomes full again with this all too true cautionary tale.


9. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, Kathleen Rooney

It’s the last day of the year in Manhattan circa 1984. 85-year-old Lillian sets out for a party to ring in the New Year. Bundled up in her mink coat, she walks over 10 miles around the Big Apple, meeting all kinds of characters and reflecting on her life – one filled with thrills, challenges, and romance. 


Lillian was once one of the most successful women in advertising across all of America. She’s lived an exciting life and watched New York City change throughout the decades, but much like the city she loves, she may have aged, but she hasn’t changed entirely.


Reading Lillian’s trips down memory lane is enjoyable and relatable. The protagonist is interesting and inspiring, committed to living her life truthfully and joyfully. Rooney takes an older female character and writes from a totally refreshing angle. It’s hard to not love the remarkable Lillian (or wish you could be a bit more like her!).


10. Late Call, Angus Wilson

This novel centers on Sylvia Calvert: an elderly, ordinary, working-class woman. When Sylvia falls ill, she is forced to leave her job as the manager of a small hotel and move towns to live with her recently widowed headmaster son, Harold, and his family. Sylvia struggles to adjust to the glossy modern town and there she sinks into depression until she figures out how to be in this world.


Wilson’s novel is sometimes funny, often at the expense of the self-admiring people who inhabit this small new town. By entering into Sylvia’s hopes and fears, the novel highlights the need for our own territory and the elements of life that provide us with a sense of self.


11. Noah’s Compass, Anne Tyler

60-year-old Liam Pennywell has just lost his job as a 5th-grade teacher in a run-down private school, driving him to downsize his home. Although he wasn’t too fond of his job and wasn’t bothered about retiring, he feels his life is shrinking. 


Liam spends his days in an armchair watching the pine trees switch shape in the ever-changing daylight. Then an unexpected incident happens leaving him battling with memory loss. In his efforts to recover the moments of his life that have been stolen from him, he enlists the help of an earnest younger woman he meets at the neurologist’s office, Eunice. It is as their relationship develops Liam is pressed to confront his own solitude.


Tyler’s novel is subtle, compassionate and wise, focusing on the mundane realities of life. The themes of this novel portray the comforts of predictability and the confusion of a disturbed routine. Through Tyler’s words, we come to understand that life is at its best when we allow for it to be messy and unstructured.


12. Emily, Alone, Stewart O’Nan

Emily is a widow whose children have grown up and long departed. She dreams of visits from her grandchildren, but her family is scattered all over the country and they seldom call. Her only companions are her sister-in-law, Arlene, and her housekeeper, Betty. 


Each week Emily looks forward to when she and Arlene head out to eat at an inexpensive diner. Then one day, while at their favorite breakfast buffet, Arlene faints and Emily’s life changes in unexpected ways.


O’nan writes so realistically of what it’s like living alone as an 80-year-old woman. While there are no dramatic twists in this novel, the character-driven element makes it a gentle view of understanding life. It is a testament to the will to live when you feel you have no purpose but endless independence even if you don’t want it.

Emily Davies
Book Club

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