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Aging and Death.

Literature allows us to experience unfamiliar worlds and lives: we immerse ourselves in the stories of characters from other places and eras, and we walk alongside those experiencing triumph or tragedy on scales we can only imagine. But great novels can also illuminate our shared experiences. With these broad commonalities in mind, we now complete our Life Stages series. We covered Coming of Age in our January/February 2011 issue, First Love in May/June 2011, Careers in November/December 2011, Marriage in March/April 2012, Family Life in September/October 2012, and Midlife in January/February 2013. We now turn to Aging and Death. Although most of our books feature elderly protagonists, we also include a few novels about young lives ending. We focus on contemporary writers from the mid-20th century on, dividing our selections according to the novel's chronological setting. Our list is not comprehensive; we present some beloved classics, as well as works that have been overlooked in recent years.

Early 1900s

Far Bright Star (2009)

By Robert Olmstead

In 1916, veteran cavalryman Napoleon Childs assembles a group of soldiers to hunt down Mexican bandit and revolutionary Pancho Villa. Their foray into Mexico ends in disaster when an independent mob brutally ambushes the group. Napoleon is left, naked and broken, to die under a sweltering desert sun, his only company a pistol with a single ominous bullet. As he struggles with his descent into madness, Napoleon meditates on his role as a son, a brother, and a soldier, questioning, all the while, the worth of human life. Olmstead's novel, which features some characters from Coal Black Horse (**** July/Aug 2007), is not for the faint of heart, but it is a masterful, mesmerizing portrait of one man facing oblivion. (**** SELECTION Sept/Oct 2009)

The Old Gringo (1985)

By Carlos Fuentes

In his 12th novel, Mexican writer and statesman Fuentes explores the corruption of Mexico's elite, the debasement of revolutionary ideals, and the tragic history of cultures in conflict. Loosely based on the disappearance of journalist Ambrose Bierce in Mexico in 1913, the novel also concerns death. In November 1913, Bierce, 71, crossed the U.S.-Mexican border at El Paso and disappeared without a trace. In his letters, he had written that he had the right to pick the manner of his death, and Fuentes suggests that the reason for the old gringo's last adventure south of the border was suicide: he crossed the border to die during the Mexican Revolution. The Old Gringo opens with a squad of guerrillas digging up his corpse; the gringo's backstory is then told through a prism of machismo, injustice, and betrayal.

1920s and 1930s

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1987)

By Fannie Flagg

Was there ever more of a feel-good novel than this one? Each week Evelyn Couch, a middle-aged housewife searching for meaning in her life, visits Ninny Threadgoode, an 86-year-old nursing home resident. As their friendship develops, Ninny shares her memories of her youth in Whistle Stop, Alabama, and the cafe that played such a large role in her life. The novel moves back and forth between the 1920s, when the inspiring Idgie Threadgoode, Ninny's future sister-in-law, ran the cafe, and the 1980s in Birmingham, where Ninny inspires Evelyn's new outlook on life. Besides women's aging, the novel also touches on implicit homosexuality, female friendship, and the acceptance of death.

Love in the Time of Cholera (1985)

By Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Garcia Marquez based this tragicomic story of unrequited love on his parents' strange, but not extraordinarily lengthy, courtship. In this classic, a vow of love takes 51 years, nine months, and four days to fulfill. In an unnamed Caribbean seaport city resembling Cartagena between the 1880s and the 1930s, the pathetic Florentino Ariza courts the youthful Fermina Daza, only to lose her to the wealthy Juneval Urbino. At the latter's funeral 51 years later, Ariza again declares his love to Fermina, precipitating a chain of events that reunites the couple near the end of their lives.

1940s/World War II

Moon Tiger (1987)

By Penelope Lively


On her deathbed, 76-year-old historian and former war correspondent Claudia Hampton, haunted by the ghosts of her past, decides to compose a history of the world using her own life as a focal point. Written from multiple perspectives--including that of a British tank officer, her brother, and her estranged daughter--and taking place before, during, and after World War II, Claudia's "history" reconstructs the trajectory of her life. Just before dying, Claudia reflects on the woman she wanted to be--and on the woman, sometimes unrecognizable even to herself, she ultimately became.


Gilead (2004)

By Marilynne Robinson



When the Reverend John Ames, 77, falls ill in 1956, he starts to contemplate what it means to live in a state of Christian grace. A pastor in the small prairie town of Gilead, Iowa, Ames begins to see his life with clarity while writing an extended letter to his young son. In this letter he meditates on such issues as creation, human existence, and wisdom, while writing a family history spanning the century between the Civil War and the Civil Rights era. "We live in the ruins of the lives of other generations," Ames writes in this novel about aging and the ability to forgive and to reach peace. (**** SELECTION Mar/Apr 2005)

Memento Mori (1959)

By Muriel Spark

Though it deals with themes of death, human frailty, and deception, Spark's third novel has fine moments of black humor and a refreshing take on life. In late 1950s London, a mysterious telephone caller infiltrates a group of elderly friends who constantly bicker, rewrite their wills, and wonder how they will pass and informs each of them, "Remember, you must die." While this news comes as no surprise, the caller's anonymity nonetheless unsettles the octogenarians. In the ensuing flurry, in which each tells the baffled police a different story, long-held secrets come to light. Soon, memories of past sin and loves, successes, and failures force them to confront their physical and mental impairments and, as the anonymous caller reminds them, their own final demises.


Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (1971)

By Elizabeth Taylor


Elizabeth Taylor (not that one) has often been described as one of the finest British writers of the mid-20th century, the "missing link between Jane Austen and John Updike." Her last book to be published, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, tells the story of the elderly widow Laura Palfrey, who moves into a private hotel in West London populated by aging men and women unable to care for themselves. But instead of ending her days in trivial gossip with the Claremont's eccentric and bored guests, she strikes up an unlikely friendship with Ludo, a young bohemian writer who uses her life for his novel. In the process, she discovers that even the elderly can love again. This novel offers a melancholic, if realistic, look at old age.

The Poorhouse Fair (1965)

By John Updike

Updike's first novel may not be his best known or his best. But it is still Updike, and worth reading for a young writer's surprisingly astute understanding of old age. The book concerns the lives of a group of eccentric people living in a poorhouse in New Jersey, including 94-year-old John Hook, who refuses to relinquish his life. On the morning of the annual Fair, a righteous young prefect who thinks he knows what is best for others sets in motion a terrible conflict with the poorhouse's elderly inhabitants.


The Black Prince (1973)

By Iris Murdoch

Influenced by Hamlet, Murdoch's 15th novel touches on issues of love, art, death, truth, and vengeance, all explored from shifting perspectives. When Bradley Pearson, an unsuccessful aging London author with writer's block, falls in love with the young daughter of friend and successful literary rival Arnold Baffin, he becomes caught up in familial dysfunction. Violence, suicide, and murder all complicate Pearson's attempt to pen the masterpiece he knows exists within him. He finds the solitude necessary for such creativity only when he is accused of a murder he did not commit. This philosophical novel explores morality and eternal truths.

The Twilight Years (1984)

By Sawako Ariyoshi, translated from the Japanese by Mildred Tahara

Ariyoshi, a Japanese writer and novelist, explores how we care for the elderly in our modern society. In late 1970s Tokyo, Akiko's disrespectful, difficult father in law, Shigezo, becomes senile. Although Akiko is both a middle-class, working housewife and a mother, Shigezo's care falls on her shoulders. The novel offers rich commentary on Japanese gender roles and ageism, and it raises important issues about geriatric care and the quality of life as death approaches. But the social issues and the suffering that Akiko experiences are universal--as is the emotional growth that accompanies her travails.


The Old Devils (1986)

By Kingsley Amis


Modestly successful poet Alun Weaver and his still beautiful trophy wife return to their native South Wales, upending the lives of three couples at the start of their golden years. Weaver's career had rested on publicly revealing all things Welsh--including the dirt on and memories of his old friends. But when tragedy strikes, his elderly friends, with their complicated romantic and alcoholic entanglements, must carry on. Amis's masterful prose, biting humor, and devastating insight into life's final moments make The Old Devils a fascinating, if distinctly British, read.

Rabbit at Rest (1990)

By John Updike

Updike's acclaimed Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom series begins with Rabbit, Run (1960); Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990) follow. In this elegiac final volume of the series, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom has had enough. In a cardiac care unit in a Florida hospital, Rabbit, though only 55 but dangerously overweight and far, far from his glory days as a high school basketball star, senses his own death arriving: "You fill a slot for a time and then move out; that's the decent thing to do: make room." Of course, domestic crises of other sorts distract Rabbit from his impending--and perhaps not-so-imminent--demise.


The Blackwater Lightship (1999)

By Colm Toibin


In early 1990s Ireland, three generations of an estranged family--Helen, her mother Lily, and her grandmother Dora--come together to care for Helen's brother Declan, who is dying of AIDS. Only Helen knows that Declan is gay; when he reveals his condition, he invites them to spend time together at Dora's seaside house near the Blackwater Lightship, where the family has both fond and terrible memories. Instead of writing an "AIDS" story, the Irish novelist (who was also short-listed for the Booker Prize for The Master, **** SELECTION Sept/Oct 2004) uses terminal illness to explore familial relationships, denial, and the powerful histories that can reclaim important relationships amid impending death.

The Following Story (1991)

By Cees Nooteboom

Acclaimed Dutch novelist Nooteboom's erudite novella explores a man traveling through space, time, and memory. Herman Mussert, a classics teacher, believes in a soul that endlessly transforms in the last moments of life. One evening, he goes to bed in Amsterdam and wakes up in a strangely familiar Lisbon hotel room. As his journey progresses, Mussert's soul leaves life, finds meaning, leaves life, and so on. This short novel, which takes place (perhaps) over the last two seconds of Mussert's life, is both concrete and philosophical, poetic and prosaic, in its Kafkaesque questioning of the dichotomy of the mind and body and in its inquiry into how to escape the mundane.

Scar Tissue (1994)

By Michael Ignatieff


"We have just enough knowledge to know our fate but not enough to do anything to avert it," says the narrator about his mother's descent into Alzheimer's and his own genetic predisposition to the condition. His mother, a painter, had a family history of the disease, and her two sons are now a neurological researcher and a philosopher (the latter this semiautobiographical novel's narrator). As he delves into childhood memories, the narrator recounts his mother's excruciating decline, the breakup of his own marriage, and the following months of depression. Above all, this poignant novel offers a searing exploration of one son's fears, an understanding of how we deal with crises, and insight into the nature of memory.

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian (1999)

By Kurt Vonnegut

We couldn't help but include this selection from one of our favorite authors. Masquerading as a reporter for public radio, Vonnegut, who avails himself to Dr. Kevorkian, delves into the question of the afterlife in 30 "interviews." He speaks with a construction worker who suffered a heart attack while rescuing his schnauzer from a pit bull; with Shakespeare (who responds to Vonnegut's questions with quotations from his plays); with John Brown; and with socialist Eugene V. Debs. He also converses with Hitler, Isaac Asimov, James Earl Ray, Clarence Darrow, and, of course, Kilgore Trout. Throughout, he asks questions about who we are, what we live for, and what death and heaven, finally, are--or are not.

Family Matters (2002)

By Rohinton Mistry

In 1990s Bombay, a domestic crisis of epic proportions plays out. Nariman Vakeel, afflicted by Parkinson's disease, has three grown children, each with their own problems. A former professor now confined to his bedroom, Nariman has ample time to reflect on his tragic past: his love for a woman he could not marry because she was not a Parsi and his unhappy marriage to a widow with two children. When he breaks his ankle, he is carted off to his daughter and her husband's two-room apartment and deposited on the sofa. Nariman's presence changes the lives of everyone as they struggle, learn, and endure together. Mistry (A Fine Balance, 1995) paints an intimate portrait of old age and decrepitude as well as a very realistic picture of the difficulties of aging gracefully. Or just aging.

The Forgotten (1992)

By Elie Wiesel

Distinguished psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor Elhanan Rosenbaum, now living in New York, finds himself losing his memory. But before all of his memories are lost, he resolves to recount his past to his son, Malkiel--including a crime committed many years before. When he son travels to the Romanian village of his father's crime, he starts to understand the links that bind the different generations and that lend meaning to individual lives. Malkiel finally realizes: "I will bear witness in his place; I will speak for him. It is the son's duty not to let his father die."

Being Dead (1999)

By Jim Crace


When Celice and Joseph, both middle-aged doctors of zoology married for more than three decades, return to the seaside where they originally met, they are murdered and robbed in the dunes where they originally made love. Their bodies lie undiscovered for days. Working from the day of their murders and going back 30 years before, Crace tells the story of a marriage--from their first meeting in the 1960s to their love, careers, parenting, and the small decisions that govern each day. The novel then moves forward as their rebellious daughter helps search for their decaying corpses. Being Dead, graphic in its depiction of bodies returning to the earth, offers a graceful exploration of the imperfections of human life--and death.

2000s/Present Day

Exit Ghost (2007)

By Philip Roth

A young, lusty Nathan Zuckerman made his first appearance in The Ghost Writer (1979). Now, 50 years later, a few days before George Bush's reelection, 71-year-old Nathan emerges from 11 years of writing in self-imposed isolation. He returns to New York City for a medical procedure that he hopes will cure the incontinence resulting from his previous prostate cancer treatment. While there, he unexpectedly reconnects with his past. "For fans of the Zuckerman books," writes the New York Times, Exit Ghost "provides a poignant coda to Nathan's story, putting a punctuation point to his journey from youthful idealism and passion through midlife confusion and angst toward elderly renunciation."

Emily, Alone (2011)

By Stewart O'Nan

In this sequel to Wish You Were Here (2002), the widowed 80-year-old Emily Maxwell lives a quiet life in the Pittsburgh suburbs. Her husband's belongings remain scattered throughout their home, and her beloved dog, Rufus, grows fatter with each passing year. Emily wonders when her grown children will visit, relies on family to drive her around town, and grieves as neighbors die and their homes go up for sale. But when her sister-in-law collapses at their favorite brunch place, Emily learns that change comes to everyone, even when they are not prepared for it, and she starts to discover a newfound independence. Readers will feel a spark of kinship toward Emily Maxwell, recognizing in her their own mothers and grandmothers, if not themselves. (**** SELECTION May/June 2011)

The Secret Scripture (2008)

By Sebastian Barry



Centenarian Roseanne McNulty has decided to record her life story, "for dearly would I love now to leave an account, some kind of brittle and honest-minded history of myself." However, having spent the last several decades at the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital in Ireland, she is forced to scribble her memoirs--her secrets--on scavenged scraps of paper and to hide them under floorboards. When the crumbling institution is condemned, head psychiatrist Dr. William Grene, who writes a parallel narrative, must determine the fate of all the patients. He is convinced that Roseanne is sane, but when he tries to prove it, a sly cat-and-mouse game ensues. (**** SELECTION May/June 2009)

Olive Kitteridge (2008)

By Elizabeth Strout


Olive Kitteridge, a retired teacher and a pharmacist's wife, is quick, sharp, big, gossipy, and not an easy force to reckon with. In 13 short stories set in Crosby, a small, fictional town in Maine, Olive crosses paths with ordinary Mainers--or at least has walk-on parts in stories featuring them. In "A Little Burst," Olive plays a trick on her son's wedding day; she later visits him and his family in New York. In "Incoming Tide," Olive sees one of her former students in a car--and decides to intervene in what she understands to be a problematic situation. Olive's relationship with her kind, suffering husband takes center stage as both of them age and experience love, loss, betrayal, and, above all, flashes of empathy toward their very small-town neighbors. (**** SELECTION July/Aug 2008)

The Lovely Bones (2002)

By Alice Sebold

This heartbreaking novel opens with Susie Salmon, 14, offering a detailed description of her brutal rape and murder. She's in heaven, and she knows who her murderer is, but no one alive--neither the police nor her devastated family--can solve the crime. From her perch in heaven, Susie watches as her family and friends struggle to understand their loss and as she comes to terms with her own death. (***** SELECTION Nov/Dec 2002)

A Happy Marriage (2009)

By Rafael Yglesias

In 1975, promising young writer Enrique Sabas meets the woman of his dreams, Margaret Cohen. Unfortunately, the 21-year-old high school dropout, shy and insecure despite the two novels he has already published, commits every mistake imaginable while trying to woo the self-assured Cornell grad four years his senior. Nearly 30 years later, Margaret is in the hospital. Despondent and wracked with pain after three years of aggressive cancer treatments, she begs her husband to let her die. While Enrique busies himself with final preparations, he relives the highs and lows of their relationship, quietly composing the last words he will ever say to his dearly loved wife. (**** SELECTION Nov/Dec 2009)

Oldies but Goodies





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Title Annotation:LIFE STAGES; Far Bright Star; The Old Gringo; Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe
Author:Teisch, Jessica
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2013
Previous Article:Have you read?
Next Article:Now in paperback.

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