I’m incredulous. Even though I’ve known for months that the day would come when my book baby Woman of An Uncertain Age would be out in the world and building its own relationships with readers, I’m still having a hard time believing it’s out. Maybe you can understand my disbelief because this book has been a decade in the making, my longest-ever pregnancy. (The other two were a traditional nine months.) But I’m forcing myself to believe it as I hold a galley copy in my hand and note that Amazon no longer says “Preorder” but “Add to Cart.”
As the reality of this momentous occasion trickles into me, excitement starts to emerge in slow, rainbow bubbles. Of course, I’m thrilled that I wrote a book and it has been published, but I’m also enthused there’s another book out there featuring a middle-aged female protagonist (there aren’t that many) who is in full bloom in her fifties. I cannot tell you how many times I have been told that it’s rare to find books about older women.
An 2021 article in LitHub titled “Life Beyond Act One: Why We Need More Stories About Older Women” by Mary Sharratt eloquently and passionately articulates this problem.
“We live in a youth-obsessed culture. The cosmetic industry pushes wrinkle creams and hair dye on us while celebrities resort to fillers and surgery to preserve an illusion of eternal girlhood. Advancing age, once a mark of honor, has become a source of shame. Popular fiction, literary classics, television, and movies celebrate young heroines, from Elizabeth Bennett to Katniss Everdeen. But where are the stories about older women and why do we all need to hear them?
We live longer than ever before. Women’s lives don’t play out in one act, even though our culture programs us to think that way. It almost seems a travesty to imagine an older Elizabeth Bennett grown bored of Darcy and yearning to reinvent herself and embrace some new adventure.
Old-school male authors were really big on killing off their young heroines so they couldn’t even dream about maturing into women with agency. Shakespeare merrily committed femicide on Juliet, Ophelia, and Desdemona, to name just a few of his hapless heroines.
Why have so many authors, past and present, refused to let their heroines age? Why this reluctance to write about seasoned female protagonists who have been around the block more than once? Perhaps because too many people, even today, consider experienced women threatening. Since the time of witch burnings and scold’s bridles, male-dominated culture has been petrified of older woman who seize their power. That’s why stories about young women with a certain cut-off date are much cozier and less threatening.
But coming-of-age stories can only take us so far. We need to imagine lives beyond Act One, beyond a vague glimmering on the horizon. We need signposts to help us navigate our long and unavoidably complicated modern lives. We live in an age of divorce, blended families, and many of us pursue several careers and many paths of discovery over the course of a single lifetime. Contrary to cultural expectations, women do have exciting, juicy lives after forty and beyond. Contemporary fiction should explore and celebrate this.
Yes, there have been break-out books about older women—Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, and even literary classics, such as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway—but these are the exceptions that prove the rule. In the publishing marketplace, stories about older women remain a hard sell. Which is bitterly ironic, considering that most fiction is purchased by women over the age of forty.
Yet it’s not just an older audience that needs to read about older heroines. I would argue that girls and young women are in even greater need of literary role models to guide them way beyond a self-limiting Act One.
Today, I’m proud to say that I’ve given visibility not just to any older woman, but to a middle-aged South Asian immigrant widow, the kind of woman that rarely finds any representation.
My hope is that people read and enjoy my book, of course, but I also wish that it adds more color and complexity to their ideas of older women and their lives. And to all the older women out there, I hope you’ll be able to relate to the dilemmas, angst, and pleasures of Naina Mehta, the fifty-something protagonist of Woman of An Uncertain Age.
And, on that note, I’m going to go out with a friend to celebrate. Cheers everyone and happy reading!
Sights Naina, the protagonist from Woman of an Uncertain Age, sees as she strolls along her beloved west village. Perhaps she's on her way to meet Ludwig.
As you probably know by now, I’m obsessed by middle-aged and older women’s lives and I was fascinated by an article I read where the legendary actress, Emma Thompson, talks about the challenge of disrobing at the age of 63 in a new film called Good Luck to You Leo Grande about an older women’s quest for pleasure. In the film, Thompson plays Nancy, a recently widowed, former religious schoolteacher who has yet to experience an orgasm and makes a revolutionary decision to hire a young male sex worker to give her the satisfaction she has long yearned for.
“For Leo Grande, the choice to disrobe was hers, and though she made it with trepidation, Thompson said she believes “the film would not be the same without it,” wrote Nicole Sperling in an article titled “Emma Thompson and the Challenge of Baring All Onscreen at 63” in the New York Times on June 15, 2022. (Link to article at the bottom) “Still, the moment she had to stand stark naked in front of a mirror with a serene, accepting look on her face, as the scene called for, was the most difficult thing she’s ever done.”
While Thompson was able to bring herself to be nude on screen and appear calm, she was not entirely at ease with her body.
“To be truly honest, I will never ever be happy with my body. It will never happen,” said Thompson in the New York Times article. “I was brainwashed too early on. I cannot undo those neural pathways.”
I was really impacted by this. And you might be too. So many women can relate to this feeling of never being happy in their own skin, of being indoctrinated way too early in life. It’s really tragic, and I think it’s imperative to ensure that all women, beginning with very young girls, have a healthy relationship with their bodies.
However, I do think it’s a positive development that a star like Emma Thompson appeared on screen nude despite her hesitation. In movies, people are typically used to seeing slim, trim, supple youthful bodies that women feel are the norm and desperately try to replicate through surgery, starvation, and other extreme methods. But by showing an authentic older woman’s body in Leo Grande, one filled with sagging, post-breastfeeding breasts, flab around the stomach and skin that’s losing its elasticity, it expands the repertoire of images of the female form we have in film. Also, it normalizes an aging female body.
“So if you want the world to change, and you want the iconography of the female body to change, then you better be part of the change,” said Thompson in the New York Times article. “You better be different.”
While reading the various articles about Leo Grande, I was also struck by the similarities between Naina, the fifty-something protagonist of my forthcoming novel Woman of An Uncertain Age, and Thompson and Nancy, the character she plays, when it came to their relationships with their aging flesh. Furthermore, there are parallels between Naina and Nancy as they both embark on later-in-life pleasure-seeking adventures that involve a radical trespassing of many internal boundaries.
Early on in Woman of An Uncertain Age, Naina, like Nancy, stares at her body in the mirror, something she has not done in years. This passage from the novel reveals her discomfort as well as her longing to be desirable.
“Naina gingerly turned toward the filigreed bamboo-edged mirror and decided she would be very objective in assessing her body, something she rarely did with any degree of concentration. But there she loomed in front of herself, her reflection more remote than intimate.
She started at the top—the parts she was accustomed to looking at.
Yes, her flowing black tresses had been replaced by neat layers of hair that fell to her shoulders. But so much more appropriate for someone her age. Around her eyes, admittedly, she had developed crow’s feet and dark circles, but nothing that couldn’t be easily disguised with a touch of the right concealer. That tight stomach of her early twenties did bulge a little, but luckily it mostly disappeared with proper shapewear. She cringed when she saw a skein of smudges on the sides of her stomach. She shook her head and sighed. Such was the fate of women. Motherhood meant being permanently and indelibly marked. Even after your children could look after themselves, your body still bore the badge of giving birth decades before.”
While I’ve read a lot about Leo Grande, I’ve yet to see the film. (Life, sadly, gets in the way of such pleasures, and I’ve been busy proofreading my book, doing book promotion, writing this blog post and facilitating end-of-school year activities for my young kids.) But everything I’ve read has convinced me it will be excellent and, in the off chance it’s not, it’s still a pivotal film because it portrays a nude older women with powerful sexual desires that she’s determined to fulfil.
Here are links to a few articles on the film I found pertinent and enlightening, starting with the New York Times piece I refer to in this blog post.
Hi Friends, Welcome to my Website! Today I’m going to share with you the story about what inspired my novel “Woman of An Uncertain Age.” I hope you enjoy it!
Several years ago, I met an Indian-American girl at a wedding in a large U.S. city and we started talking. She grew up comfortably in the United States with a professional father and a stay-at-home mother, and I got the sense that her family was one of those that is both traditional and modern, like many Indian families in America. She was in her late twenties and studying to become a psychotherapist, and, as we drank some wine, she started to disclose some interesting things. Her father had died not too long ago, and her mother, whom I pictured as a motherly, straitlaced fifty-something Indian woman with neatly-tied long hair, had a boyfriend.
This took me by surprise. I had rarely heard of an Indian woman of that age, particularly someone with two or three daughters in their twenties, the classic marriageable age, have a boyfriend. “Was your mother always a progressive sort?” I asked the girl, trying to disguise my amazement. “No”, she replied. “And you would never know it by looking at her. After my father died, something in her broke loose.”
I was really intrigued. We drank some more and she continued talking. One time, her mother had asked her if she could talk to her about something, not as a daughter but as a therapist. “I told her I didn’t think that was appropriate, but she insisted, saying she had no one else to talk to about this,” the girl said, her expressive face looking like it was still befuddled by that conversation.
“ Then my mom told me that there’s something that he (the mother’s boyfriend) likes her to do to him, but doesn’t like to reciprocate – she was referring to something sexual, if you know what I mean,” the girl revealed. “She wanted me to give her advice on how to handle the situation.”
Now, I was completely stunned. I didn’t know too many women of any culture who would talk to their daughters like this, let alone an Indian woman.
After the wedding, the girl and I parted ways but I couldn’t stop thinking about her mother. Who was she? Why did she ask her daughter something so intimate instead of going to a therapist? Was she, like many Indians, wary of going to a therapist? What had her marriage been like? What had given her the courage to have a boyfriend? Was she open about it amongst other Indians? The image of this woman whom I have never met and had no more information about started forming in my mind, my mind slowly filling in the numerous blanks. This image was the seed that eventually blossomed into the character of my protagonist Naina.
Around the time of this wedding, I was in my twenties and dating quite a lot, something inevitably accompanied by its own delights and tribulations. I had become close friends with a woman in her early 50’s, a slim, stylish artist with whom I shared common interests. She was divorced and also dating. She went out with men of a wide age range – from early forties to mid-seventies. We would often discuss our romantic life and I was quite astonished to find that her experiences were not that different from mine. She also encountered emotionally unavailable men, men who were interested in her but did not understand her, men who did not offer to pay for a meal, and men who did not call when they said they would. Like me, she would also get frustrated and discouraged with dating and when we would talk, we never felt the nearly 25-year gulf between us.
This fascinated me. Growing up in India, I generally saw people conform to the age-related expectations of the time. Almost everyone I knew went to college right after high school, and some girls got married soon after college. Others pursued graduate degrees and took up careers, but were generally married in their twenties. And the same thing happened in my parents’ generation, but fewer women worked outside the home.
In New Delhi, the city I grew up in, a woman, whose two adolescent daughters I knew, lost her husband when she was in her early forties. I recall wondering if she would ever marry again, ever feel the touch of a man’s skin on her again. (As a teenage girl, I would spend my time thinking about such things:} I asked someone, an older lady if I recall correctly, if this aunty would marry again and she shook her head and said – “Priya, don’t ask silly questions.” I don’t think it even occurred to anyone to think that the newly-widowed lady, who is now in her eighties and still single, would ever remarry.
When my father passed away, my mother was 62, a rotund, desexualized being past the age of romance, in most people’s eyes including my own. Still, just to be provocative, I would tease her and tell her to find a boyfriend and leave me alone whenever she would annoy me. The idea was so absurd that she would laugh in response.
As the picture of my protagonist Naina started to emerge, I became curious about middle-aged women’s lives and about the relationship between grown-up daughters and mothers. What happens when a middle-aged mother wants to undertake the journey of finding herself, the classic rite of passage of a young person? What happens when she, at an age when she is expected to be mature and sensible, is open, vulnerable, impulsive and prone to making mistakes? What happens when that woman loses the authority of being older and the mother figure and the daughter takes on the responsible adult role? What are the consequences of that role reversal? And, what is the relationship between age and wisdom? In India, older people are generally respected and assumed to be wise, but in the West the link between age and wisdom is so much more ambiguous.
As I was thinking about writing my novel, there was so much out there about the lives of women in their twenties and thirties, a plethora of chick lit and films and TV shows. But I saw much fewer explorations, at least serious explorations, of the lives of contemporary middle-aged women. (I will talk about And Just like That, the Sex and the City reboot that features middle-aged women in a separate blog post) For me, these women, particularly those from traditional cultures living in the United States, were interesting because they were caught between conventional expectations and a mainstream culture that constantly questions age-related notions, an environment where the perpetual quest for youth seems to be more urgent and insistent than ever.
I read a great deal and found British writer Anita Brookner’s intense renditions of the inner lives of middle-aged women to have great psychological acuity, and I learned a lot from her books. Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years, a quirky tale of a middle-aged woman suddenly leaving her husband and children, impressed me with its ability to portray its flawed protagonist in both a sympathetic and unsentimental way.
And as I started to write my novel, I could hear the whispers of my favorite authors in the back my head; Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Anais Nin, Nicole Krauss, Pankaj Mishra, Hari Kunzru, Salman Rushdie, Julia Glass, Kiran Desai, Isabel Allende, Bharati Mukherjee, to name just a few. They urged me to create, sent me an image when none would come, showed me the way to keep the plot tight and moving when it started to sag. And then there was my husband who urged me in what was definitely not a whisper to keep writing. Hopefully, the result is interesting, thought-provoking, enjoyable, and above all, a story that many across the globe can relate to at a time when assumptions regarding age and motherhood are relentlessly being challenged.