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!