09 April 2012

Has Age Become Fiction's Final Frontier?

I finished reading Deborah Moggach's The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel this weekend, and while it was neither as fun & fresh, nor as offensive, as I was expecting, I came to realize as I was reading it that it just might be one of those "final frontier" books of fiction.  That is, a book about old people.

I read a lot--not unusual for either booksellers or bookbloggers, of which I am both.  And like many readers, I read to broaden my own experience. In the years since I've been blogging and bookselling, I've read hundreds (quite possibly thousands) of books whose main characters span various races, religions, ethnicities, gender identities, sexual preferences, and socio-economic backgrounds that are different from my own. I've even read a collection of short stories about deeply religious, gay Indian men living abroad, which is about as "other" from me that you can get in one book. I've read tons of books about children, teens, young adults, and middle-aged adults, but in the last several years, I've think I've only read three books that feature main characters over the age of 70. Isn't that strange?

One of them is The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which tries and fails on many levels to adequately address the issue of otherness, but where it succeeds is in creating a believable community of characters over the age of 70.  If this book hadn't been turned into a movie featuring the fabulous Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, and the no-less-fabulous but not-yet-knighted Penelope Wilton, I doubt this book would have ever crossed my radar, and thus my grand total of books read in the last decade featuring main characters of post-retirement age would have been reduced from three to two.

Oh, sure.  There have been plenty of books featuring a matriarch, a paterfamilias. There are lots of plucky grandmothers and great aunts out there who inspire the younger heroine and provide much-needed life lessons. And I've read span-of-life books that follow the characters from youth to old age.  But the only other two books I can recall with certainty that featured bona fide oldster protagonists are The Leisure Seeker by Michael Zadoorian and the excellent Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan, both of which put octogenarians front and center.

But why are there not more? If the United Nations' statistics are right, the world's over-65 population is growing at an unprecedented rate, why are there not more books that reflect the world's aging population? To put it in (potentially offensive) majority/minority or dominant/marginalized terms from my own country here: Americans read about other nationalities, white people read about people of color; straight people read about non-straight people; middle class people read about both poor  and rich people, Christians read about non-Christians, men read about women; so why don't younger people read about older people?

'Cause age is the final frontier.  That's why.  Or at least that's my theory.  If we're extremely lucky, we're all going to grow old.  I think authors of all ages should take that to heart and provide readers with richly-textured and substantive books featuring at least septuagenarian, if not older, characters.  If, in addition to broadening our experience, we read to know we're not alone, then we're going to be needing lots of those kinds of books, posthaste.

What books  of fiction have *you* read that feature older protagonists?  I'm sure there have been others published that I'm simply not aware of. Please share them here and we will all be the richer for it.


  1. Hmm, this is a very interesting theory. Seems like authors are afraid to write stories about older characters. A quick mental scan of my past reads seems to confirm it. I can only think of one book that contained an older protagonist, 29 by Adena Halpern, but the entire focus of that was on a 74 year old wishing she were younger.

  2. The best I can think of is probably A Lifetime Burning by Linda Gillard, but it follows a woman's life so maybe not? Emotional Geology and Stargazing by the same author both have heroines who are in their late 40s but that is not exactly old anymore

  3. hi, Jenna and Lucybird. I confess, when I was writing this post I wasn't sure whether I wanted all kinds of people to come back at me and say, you're wrong, look at this, this, & this for over-65 characters. Or whether I wanted to be proven true, at least anecdotally.

  4. Interesting review. I think one of the reasons there aren't more books about 'older characters' is because we have mentally put them out to pasture ourselves. Who wants to read about a bunch of old people hanging about waiting for the end? I agree the book was flawed and like you, had it not been made into a film I wouldn't even know about it. The book is about our parents, our grandparents, our elderly aunts and uncles who have ceased to be people with places to go and things to do. At least that's how the world sees them. So for me the best part about the book is that. That we do see these characters - these elderly people - are still just that, people with ideas, with personalities, likes, dislikes, and judgements that are very different from each other despite the fact that they are all presumably in the last stage of life...the golden years. A time when they, perhaps understandably, enjoy thinking back to their glory days. Interestingly, I think, the original title "These Foolish Things" is taken from a song written in 1936. Not a whole lot of younger readers - certainly those under 50- would be aware of the song. I'm a year or so away from 60 and I know the tune.

  5. Have you read Major Pettigrew's Last Stand? It's about a cranky widowed British major (who if I remember correctly is in his 60s somewhere) who is intrigued by and attracted to the Pakistani woman who runs his neighborhood grocery store.

    (PS--I don't have a book blog, but I found you through Alice at Reading Rambo! Hello!)


  6. Hi, Anne and thanks for find me here via Reading Rambo (I love that blog!) I have read Major Pettigrew, and I didn't think of it partly because I was interested in older protagonists for this post (over 70), but that's exactly the kind of book I'd like to see more of. Thanks for the suggestion!

  7. After reading this post I racked my brain to come up with a book with elderly main characters in it and came up empty-handed. Usually, any book with an elderly central character is looking back on their life.

    I think "the final frontier" isn't something people want to think about despite the recent longevity of life and experience that can come with it. I find it sad that the age group can be cornered into a secondary character. type-casted to the wise aging Grandparent.

  8. As an aging almost 77-year old, I am looking forward to reading the above suggestions and seeing the movie...love Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. Loved "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" and our book club had a great discussion. Waiting patiently for your next travel blog.

  9. I came across your blog in looking for a book of any genre about aging. You've mentioned a couple now that I think I'd be interested in for an assignment I must complete. Thanks!

    1. Christine, I hope that you like the books and that they're helpful for your assignment. I'd be curious to know more about what the assignment is...


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