Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that the protagonists in a lot of the fiction I read (excluding YA literature) are always in the age range of mid- 20s-30s. Why is that? Is it because those middle-aged and over characters have pretty much lived their lives and have nothing worthwhile left to discover, so they are best suited as supporting characters?
Well, I wholeheartedly disagree; older main characters still have plenty of opportunities for growth and change. Their stories can offer us readers insight into the second half of our lives, which come with its own set of challenges. Older characters aren’t flat and static; they do rock…and I don’t mean sitting in a front porch rocking chair.
(Now may be the time to disclose that I am in this more mature age group, yet I refuse to label myself as “old.”)
Two recently written novels that have made my list of favorites are Anna Quindlen’s Still Life with Breadcrumbs and Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. The protagonists in both books have advanced to the second stage in their lives, and they are similar because, at the beginning of their stories, both characters are in the midst of a downslide, thinking their best years are behind them, and the future no longer looks all that appealing. When both find themselves in new, unfamiliar terrain that force them out of their comfort zones, each discovers these unprompted changes can lead the way to a fulfilling and satisfying life.
Still Life with Breadcrumbs by Anna Quindlen
Published January 2014
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Literary Fiction
Still Life with Bread Crumbs begins with an imagined gunshot and ends with a new tin roof. Between the two is a wry and knowing portrait of Rebecca Winter, a photographer whose work made her an unlikely heroine for many women. Her career is now descendent, her bank balance shaky, and she has fled the city for the middle of nowhere. There she discovers, in a tree stand with a roofer named Jim Bates, that what she sees through a camera lens is not all there is to life.
Brilliantly written, powerfully observed, Still Life with Bread Crumbs is a deeply moving and often very funny story of unexpected love, and a stunningly crafted journey into the life of a woman, her heart, her mind, her days, as she discovers that life is a story with many levels, a story that is longer and more exciting than she ever imagined.
I really enjoyed Rebecca’s story. At age 60, her life is in transition. She’s moved from the hustle and bustle of city life into a modest cottage on the outskirts of a small town. Rebecca has made a name for herself with her photographic collection called the “Kitchen Counter Series,” but years later, her fame is beginning to pass. She now finds herself in a reversal of fortune with less income and more bills and responsibilities piled on. Unlike what others may think, she hasn’t moved to the country for artistic inspiration but because it is financially necessary. For her the change in setting and circumstances is dramatic, but it also gives Rebecca the opportunity to slow down and really reflect upon her past failures and successes.
Rebecca is a woman who thinks her life has already been defined and she has grown stagnant. Through her journey she learns to break out of the box that she and everyone around her has placed her in. Our lives do not move in a linear direction, where we find one career and stay with it, we find love once, and that’s it. No, life is full of twists and turns, but if we can embrace these unexpected detours and open ourselves up to change, then new, exciting, paths await us.
Quinlan has written a powerful, poignant, beautifully moving love story about transition, loss, adaptation, and change. The story moves slowly but it’s an excellent read!
Source: Borrowed from Library
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
Published April 2014
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Literary Fiction
Hanging over the porch of the tiny New England bookstore called Island Books is a faded sign with the motto “No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World.” A.J. Fikry, the irascible owner, is about to discover just what that truly means.
A.J. Fikry’s life is not at all what he expected it to be. His wife has died, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. Even the books in his store have stopped holding pleasure for him. These days, A.J. can only see them as a sign of a world that is changing too rapidly.
And then a mysterious package appears at the bookstore. It’s a small package, but large in weight. It’s that unexpected arrival that gives A.J. the opportunity to make his life over, the ability to see everything anew. It doesn’t take long for the locals to notice the change overcoming him or for a determined sales rep named Amelia to see her curmudgeonly client in a new light. The wisdom of all those books again become the lifeblood of A.J.’s world and everything twists into a version of his life that he didn’t see coming.
As surprising as it is moving, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is an unforgettable tale of transformation and second chances, an irresistible affirmation of why we read and why we love.
“We read to know we’re not alone. We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone. We are not alone.
My life is in these books,…
Read these and know my heart.
We are not quite novels.
We are not quite short stories.
In the end, we are collected works.” –A.J. Fikry
I have fallen in love with this book, and I think anyone who loves literature will enjoy following bookstore owner, A.J. Fikry through each chapter of his life. Every chapter opens with Fikry providing a lively commentary and critique about a particular literary work, and the author does a fantastic job of connecting the literary references to the story’s meaning.
I would characterize the A.J. readers meet at the beginning of the book as an old, crotchety, unfriendly literary snob. So imagine my surprise to discover A.J. is only 39. His attitude and cynicism have certainly aged him. However, after A.J. loses a prized literary possession, his life takes some drastic but wonderful turns that begin to melt the block of ice surrounding his heart. It’s wonderful watching him open his heart to love again and to see a community that once kept their distance begin to embrace him and his beloved bookstore.
Zevin pulled me into this book seller’s life so easily and effortlessly, and I became attached not only to A.J. and his bookstore but to the wonderful supporting characters as well. I was able to connect to all of these characters and become invested in their individual storylines as well. I experienced a range of emotions as I read the book, amusement, sadness, laughter, hope, and surprise. If you are a literary aficianodo, read this book. I have highlighted so many meaningful quotes and passages, and this is a novel I can see re-reading over and over.
“Sometimes books don’t find us until the right time.”
– from The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
Let me wrap up this post with George Jones’ “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair”
Interested in purchasing these books? Click on the links below to visit Amazon.
If you have recommendations for books featuring older protagonists, please leave a comment and share them with me. And if you’ve read these books, I’d love to get your thoughts as well.