Five Novels Challenge Assumptions About Women in Midlife

From The Wall Street Journal:

Older heroines make a splash in this summer’s beach (or lockdown) reads.

A generation of readers is looking for characters who, like themselves, are seeking fulfillment as they age. Book buyers, the bulk of whom are women, want to see themselves in print in their 40s, 50s and 60s, and a new batch of fiction is obliging them.

“A lot of editors and readers are drawn to women who change after the long years of motherhood,” said Sara Nelson, vice president and executive editor at HarperCollins, which like The Wall Street Journal is owned by News Corp. “A very reader-friendly generation is looking for their life-changing experiences to be reflected back to them.”

There is no prototype for these characters. In Marcy Dermansky’s “Very Nice,” just out in paperback, a college-age woman pursues a romance with a famous male novelist but runs into formidable competition in the form of her own beautiful mother. Meanwhile, “The Weekend,” an international bestseller by Australian novelist Charlotte Wood that comes out in the U.S. next month, features a particularly biting scene where an older woman thinks she is seducing a man while he makes fun of her.

Older heroines have been redefining their identities in books for a long time— Amazon has a bestseller list devoted to “divorce fiction”—but often it has been their younger years that have mattered most. These novelists want to go further in challenging assumptions about their aging characters, trading away some of their melancholy for humor and drama.

Here, a sampling of the latest novels focused on older women.

The Motion of the Body Through Space

Lionel Shriver

Serenata, a compulsive runner sidelined by wrecked knees, is an iconoclast who disdains many things, including her nonathletic husband’s sudden decision to run a marathon. “She herself was only 60, though hers was the first generation to append ‘only’ to such a sobering milestone,” Ms. Shriver writes.

The couple can still remember each other as young people, which allows for a bit of forgiveness as they start to fall apart. But in Ms. Shriver’s hands, no marriage is safe. Coast at your own risk.

“I liked the idea of a marriage suddenly being put in this state of peril and fragility right at the point where they need to be able to rely on each other,” said Ms. Shriver, 63. “It has a kind of drama to it. If you’re writing about a youthful romance, it’s not on the same scale.”

Once an avid runner who also suffered knee problems, Ms. Shriver is interested in the fight to stay fit into older age. “No matter how many press-ups you do, you’re still going to get old, and then you feel as if that decay is your fault,” she said. “Experiencing that decay is at its least bittersweet. At its worst it’s simply bitter.”

‘All Adults Here’

Emma Straub

Astrid witnesses a school bus run over an acquaintance. The jolt convinces her to face her mistakes as a parent of three struggling adult children. A 68-year-old widow who loved her husband, Astrid also comes out to her kids about her new girlfriend.

“How long have you been lying to us?” her son sputters. One of her daughters is laughing: “Honestly, I’m impressed.” A supportive grandchild tells her “NFG.” (Look it up.)

Ms. Straub, 40, had assumed she would center her book on Astrid’s daughter, roughly the author’s age. But she gravitated to Astrid instead, interested in the older woman’s perspective, her ability to see her own role in the way her grown children turned out.

The novelist, who owns a bookstore in Brooklyn, is aware of all the young heroines out there. But she also is inspired by writers like Elizabeth Strout, who, in “Olive Kitteridge” and the 2019 follow-up “Olive, Again,” imbued her characters with what Ms. Straub called “more humanity and respect than old people often get in life and in fiction.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal