In the past year, I’ve heard a certain reader request over and over, both in my everyday life, here on the blog, and on my podcast What Should I Read Next: readers are looking for good books featuring female protagonists who aren’t just in their twenties and thirties.
And they don’t want these older women to be quirky old ladies, or magical grandmothers, or elderly curmudgeons who manage to charm you anyway—no, these readers want to read about women who seem real and relatable, whose fictional lives are similar to their own. Society may push older people—especially older women—to the sidelines, but must that be true in our books as well?
With that in mind, today I’m sharing books that put the stories of older female protagonists front and center. The experiences of the women portrayed in these books varies wildly—there’s something for everyone here—but the common thread is seasoned female protagonists who can carry their own story.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic in comments, and please share your favorite titles along these lines as well.
Major Pettigrew is your typical model citizen: honest, dedicated, and dignified, devoted to tradition and order. He has clear ideas about what is acceptable, is absolutely inflexible, and sticks to his principles in all situations. Major Pettigrew's friends and neighbors can't believe he'd befriend Mrs. Ali, a Pakistani immigrant who doesn't understand their ways, but they bond over their common experiences and a shared love of reading. A winsome story with an unlikely hero -- a widower who was raised to believe in propriety above all falls hopelessly in love with someone who is completely wrong for him, at least by the standards of his small English village. More info →
I'll bet you weren’t assigned this breezy Cinderella-ish story set in 1930s Britain back in English class. When a placement agency sends unemployed middle-aged governess Miss Pettigrew to the wrong address, she spends the best day of her life with a glamorous nightclub singer, extricating her hour by hour from one scrape after another. Light, charming and utterly delightful (though FYI, this was first published in 1938 and some conversations and attitudes feel quite dated to modern ears). More info →
Over her long career, Berg has consistently written strong female characters at many ages and stages. In this book, I appreciate her portrait of small town life, her recently widowed 55 year old protagonist, and the significance of different kinds of friendship to the story. When the main character was in a bad way, it wasn’t a man who came to her rescue—it was her friends. (Fun fact: Liane Moriarty cites Berg as her favorite author and early inspiration.) More info →
This endearing classic begins when one reads an advertisement for a small tumble-down medieval castle addressed to “Those Who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine.” She is suddenly struck by desire on this dreary, dripping day and finds a partner-in-travel to get away for a month. The two friends seek out two strangers to make a party of four women—one young, one old, two somewhere in the middle. As they travel to the Italian castle and spend the month finding out what they have in common, they find they are all unhappy with the life they find themselves leading. It's no spoiler to tell you: they come into their own. More info →
This family saga tells the story of three generations of a modern British family, brought together again during a time of crisis, all of whom have been burned by love and must figure out how to move forward. The novel, like so much of Pilcher's work, is full of interesting, well-developed, flawed-but-likable characters, and at the heart of the story sits 64-year-old Penelope Keeting, a woman who's decided to take stock of her life and make some changes before her time runs out. More info →
The debut novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gilead. Despite the novel's title, the story is one of loneliness, transience, and loss. Set in the isolated (and imaginary) town of Fingerbone, Idaho, Robinson unfolds the story of two sisters and the stream of temporary caregivers that enter their lives, one after another, after the death of their mother and grandmother. If you're a physical book lover, the pocket-sized titles from Picador are beautiful. More info →
This psychological mystery features a deeply unreliable narrator, but not for the usual reasons. The story focuses on Maud, an 81-year-old woman whose dementia is rapidly worsening. She's convinced her friend Elizabeth is missing, but because of the dementia, no one believes her—not the police, or her son, or her well-meaning daughter. But in moments of clarity, Maud becomes convinced that another life is at stake, and she has to untangle the mystery before her encroaching illness makes it impossible. More info →
The author's working title (and desired title) for this work was Christina's World, named after the Andrew Wyeth painting so many of us fell in love with the first time we laid eyes on it. In this biographical novel, Kline upends the narrative, telling the story from the perspective of the portrait's subject, "middle-aged" spinster Christina Olson. Probing, thought-provoking, and extremely discussable. More info →
Pen/Faulkner Award winner Karen Joy Fowler's underrated ensemble is made up of Austen lovers (and neophytes) of all ages, but it's the comic bon mots from senior member Bernadette (who has, she declares, decided she's "letting herself go") that sparkle. Throughout their six-month agreement to read all of Jane Austen's novels together, marriages come to the brink, friendships are formed (in various levels of suitability) and, as in any good Austen-inspired story, a letter plays a part. More info →
This is reminiscent of my all-time faves Wallace Stegner, Wendell Berry, and Marilynne Robinson. I found this up-close look at an unlikely relationship between two long-time acquaintances, both of whom lost their spouses years ago, in small-town Colorado completely absorbing, and Haruf's hits just the right tone with his light touch. This is definitely one of those books where the flap copy doesn't do it justice. More info →
Retired schoolteacher Olive is not keen about the way her small Maine town is changing. Through a series of interconnected short stories, we get to know Olive’s family and some of the townspeople as they each grapple with their respective problems, including infidelity, suicide, eating disorders, domestic violence, and more. This may sound like a dismal collection but each story is written with care and offers some hope as Olive comes to have a better, more honest understanding of herself and those around her. Strout fans, take note: there's a sequel coming this October. More info →
I'd been thinking of reading this for a year, but a friend talked me into it, saying that every member of her diverse book club loved this—the twenty-somethings and the sixty-somethings. That got my attention. It's the last day of 1984, and 85-year-old Lillian Boxfish takes a walk in late-night Manhattan, on a very specific mission. As she walks, she reflects on the life she's lived, the people she's known, and where things began to go wrong. This reminded me of J. Courtney Sullivan's The Engagements because of the strong women at the center of each. More info →
Willa is a sixty-something woman whose track record with men isn't great, as we see through scenes set when she’s 11, 21, 41, and finally 61. They patronize her and expect to be waited on, while Willa doesn't stand up for what she wants. Willa doesn't even know what she wants. But then one day the phone rings, with news that a far-away family needs her help. Even though Willa has no real obligation to help these strangers, she settles in to the rhythms of the family's life, finding herself appreciated for herself for the first time. I enjoyed this quiet novel with characters you can root for (and root against, depending). More info →
In this light-hearted mystery, a Bavarian widow moves to Sicily and rediscovers her love of living. "On her sixtieth birthday my Auntie Poldi moved to Sicily, intending to drink herself comfortably to death with a sea view." So says Poldi's nephew Michael. But life gets in the way: when Poldi's handyman goes missing, Poldi resolves to find him—with the help of the sexy police Commissario and a host of quirky Italians. Her quest brings Poldi back to life, and all she loves about it—namely prosecco, men, and gossip. Big-hearted and funny, smart and escapist: it's like taking your own Italian vacation. A delightful surprise and I'm happy the series continues. More info →
Early tragedy forged a strong bond between the four Skinner siblings, but it also broke them in ways that don’t become apparent for many years, when another unfolding tragedy makes them question everything they know about their family. A sweeping family saga.
Kingsolver found one heck of a subject for the historical element, an American scientist I'd previously never heard of named Mary Treat. Kingsolver writes that she is explicitly addressing the events of her time, but she does that in part by looking back: her double narrative follows the life-changing decisions and uncertain times experienced by two separate families, one hundred years apart, who both live in the same home in Vineland, New Jersey. Barbara Kingsolver is a must-read author for me. I love her work, especially The Poisonwood Bible. At 466 pages, this is a long book, but I inhaled it. I loved the clever linking of the chapter titles—pick up the book and you'll see what I mean. More info →
After loving The River so much I put it in the Summer Reading Guide, I immediately wanted to read everything Heller has ever written. Celine is a 60+ private investigator and artist in New York City, and perhaps the reason the character rings so true is that Heller based the character on his mother, also a detective and artist in NYC. In this story, a young woman seeks out Celine to help her find her father, who's been missing for decades, so Celine and her partner head to Yellowstone National Park, where it becomes clear someone wants this man to stay missing. Read this for the way Heller writes about nature and explores the intersection of family, privilege, and the secrets we keep. More info →
This character study focuses on four 60-something office workers living in London during the 1970s right as they are about to retire. It’s an examination of what can happen to single people as they age. The two women retire first and then the men follow but their paths continue to cross thanks to unexpected events. Marcia, Letty, Norman, and Edwin are quirky and unique, leading to a poignant tale filled with Pym’s humor. If you've never read Pym, this is a good place to begin. More info →
When Miss Julia’s husband dies unexpectedly, she has the chance to find out who she really is, now that she’s no longer beholden to her sterile, loveless marriage. But when a woman claims her child belongs to Miss Julia’s late husband, the Southern pillar of the community finds herself in the center of a scandal. It’s time for her to rise to the occasion and boy, does she! More info →
What do you do if you’re a widow with grown children who is rather bored with life? Why, become a CIA agent, of course. In her seventh decade, Mrs. Emily Pollifax proves her life has only yet begun. (FYI This was written in the 1960s and there are some dated expressions and attitudes.) More info →
And finally, I just finished one book and am halfway through another that feature strong women of a certain age: the first is Jasmine Guillory’s October release Royal Holiday; my audiobook in progress is J. Ryan Stradal’s The Lager Queen of Minnesota.
Readers, what are YOUR favorite books that fit this category? Please load up our TBRs with your suggestions here in comments.
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