I love having a stack of new and old novels in my to-be-read pile, but sometimes it seems to me that most books are about young people. Middle-aged people rarely get to be main characters; when they are, it’s often to explore an affair or a disintegrating marriage in excruciating detail. Those stories should be told, of course, but it’s not the only story happening to people past their 30s–right? There are other plot twists available to us, right? New passions, new ambitions, new life-changing realizations, new romances that augment instead of destroy?
So today, for no particular reason, here are some of my favorite books for and about grown-up people.
Virginia Woolf famously said that Middlemarch is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people. Many have disputed what precisely she meant by that; it’s an aside in a very equivocal essay about George Eliot. It makes sense to me that Woolf would have had a complicated relationship with a woman writer a generation before her, who was held up as an exception as well as an example of women writers, but she does call Middlemarch “magnificent” and I like to think that the nod to “grown-up people” references the way this book is written from the vantage point of age. Its youthful characters grow up, change their minds, develop emotional scars, or learn to open up.
Maybe it’s time to re-read this book.
Weather by Jenny Offill. Like me, the narrator feels and often sounds younger than she is–but that’s part of the point, the childlike helplessness even grown adults feel in the face of massive structural problems like climate change and inequality. Despite feeling insufficient to the task, she carries the responsibilities of supporting a senior scholar, raising her child, encouraging her troubled brother, maintaining her marriage. At one point she indulges in a text flirtation with another man, but her inner monologue is refreshingly practical–the attention of this man does not have the capacity to permanently alter her life.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. Like Middlemarch, a sprawling novel with a big cast. There are some believably written young people among its alternating points of view, but many of the POV characters are adults, sometimes with adult children. They reflect on their lives and choices with all the weight of their years, but still have the capacity to change, to start new relationships, to discuss things about themselves or their lovers or their children.
Possibly every book in Elena Ferrante‘s Neopolitan novels is written for grown people–even when she writes about their childhood, it’s from the vantage point of the past–but especially the last one, The Story of the Lost Child. In the final book, Elena and Lila are grown: they’ve been married and escaped bad marriages, have children who are nearly grown themselves, and established their careers. When they rekindle their friendship, and even more so when they lash out at each other and drive each other away, you can see both the memory of their youth and the experience accrued by age at work in their interactions.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel gets a shout-out for Miranda, a quiet middle-aged woman with a flair for logistics who, rather late in life, discovers a passion for writing and illustrating comics. The novel is named after a comic book of the same name, which Miranda made for her own pleasure and was never published, but her copy travels and changes lives anyway.
The full Wolf Hall series by Hilary Mantel qualifies, following the courtly intrigues and power grabs that preoccupy Anne, Henry, and other nobles who are old enough to act better but don’t. We meet Cromwell as a fully formed adult with a past that we only see in glimpses, to help us understand his value to the court–his experience in foreign militaries and banks, his capacious memory, his bigger-than-one-island view of politics. But in The Mirror and the Light, we see a bit more of his past as it catches up to him: Cromwell, still young enough to marry (he doesn’t) and rise in the court (he does, up to a point), is old enough to feel regrets and wonder about paths not taken.
Jazz by Toni Morrison. Morrison came to novel-writing late in life and already virtuosic, and arguably every one of her books are written for grown people, but Jazz was always my favorite. It’s been years since I last re-read it, but there are images of adulthood that made a lasting impression on me. Violet sitting down in the middle of the street, Violet and Joe reconnecting after betrayal, whispering under the covers, arranging their home to suit the movements of the body.
I would, obviously, love to know your favorite books written for grown people.