Ann Cox, MLS, Collection Development Librarian
Senior citizen protagonists have been one of the most enduring trends in fiction of the last decade. It’s no wonder they’re so popular: as the entirety of the baby boomer generation reaches 65 in 2030, rapid demographic changes will have a drastic impact on American society. For the first time in U.S. history, older people are projected to outnumber children by 2035. Additionally, the number of Americans 65 and older will more than double by 2060 and will comprise almost a quarter of the total population. With these projections, it’s expected that graceful aging is a topic at the forefront of many readers’ minds. Whether embarking on new adventures, finding love, or reflecting on the relationships that make life meaningful, the seniors in these novels prove that you don’t stop living once you reach retirement.
Late-life discoveries, whether physical or mental, spur the characters in many of these novels into amazing adventures, like the titular hero of The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick. After finding his late wife’s charm bracelet, Arthur searches for the meaning behind the charms on a poignant world tour. In Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, a recent retiree decides to walk across England to deliver a letter to an estranged friend in hospice. His journey allows him to reflect on his life choices that led to this moment. Dr. Siri Paiboun, of Colin Cotterill’s delightful series set in 1970s Communist Laos, isn’t happy that his retirement has been disrupted to serve as national coroner, but he discovers a talent for detective work. Start with The Coroner’s Lunch. These books prove that a rich and rewarding life continues after we step away from our careers.
Perhaps the most intriguing titles of this trend are humorous Swedish novels that star senior citizens who buck expectations to lead the life they choose. In Jonas Jonasson’s The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, Allan Karlsson escapes his retirement home in hopes of adventure. As he becomes embroiled in increasingly outlandish hijinks, the story reflects on his long life and the historical moments he witnessed firsthand. Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg’s charming caper, The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules (and its sequels), tackles similar ground, but elevates the stakes to include art theft, and highlights the discontent that many seniors feel when they’re expected to remain out of sight. If criminal activity appeals to you, An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good, by Helene Tursten allows the protagonist to indulge in a little murder. The linked short stories explain 88-year-old Maud’s “accidents” when she encounters someone in need of retribution. Her nothing-to-lose attitude is a refreshingly funny take on a woman’s final years.
Love is a miracle at any age, and the romantic partners in these novels appreciate its beauty and fragility in ways that aren’t usually found with younger protagonists. After the loss of their respective spouses, a friendship between a retired British officer and a Pakistani shopkeeper unfolds into a tentative romance in Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. Deborah Maggoch’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel finds its cast of British ex-pats earning an unexpected chance at love as they struggle with culture shock at a decaying luxury hotel in India. Love has no age limit in these lovely novels.
Age often brings wisdom to reflect on our relationships and provides opportunities to change. This is the heartwarming theme of The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (and Their Muses) by Terri-Lynne Defino. A physically impaired woman meets her favorite writer in the retirement home where she works as an orderly, and through their relationship, both recover from the losses of their past. In Zoe Fishman’s Inheriting Edith, a house cleaner inherits a house on the condition that she take care of an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s. After a shaky start, their friendship gives each the chance to heal. In the now classic A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, it's the cantankerous protagonist developing from a suicidal widower into a man with deep relationships with his community as his neighbors infiltrate his solitary life. With research showing that fulfilling relationships are the key to happiness late in life, these books are sure to resonate.
Senior citizens are having a moment in fiction, but readers of all ages can appreciate the lessons taught in these stories. You can find a selection of more titles, in many genres, including science fiction, cozy mysteries, and horror, on our Virtual Book Display list on ipage. As so many retirees enter this new phase, these books prove that they can still live their best lives.