Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – Jessica Norrie’s Literary Column – Can your protagonist be too old to be interesting?

Never browse Facebook, unless you’re proof against remarks that cause fits of anger.

Here’s one from an author last week:

“There’s been some chatter on other boards about seasoned romances—stories that feature heroes and heroines that are older; late 30s, 40s, even 50s+.

It was that “even 50s+” that got me, aged 59. And one response:

“I wouldn’t just read a book with an older hero or heroine, I wrote one… The hero in my first book is 38 years old, almost 39!” Well, jeez, that must make your readers sweat.

Reading on, I found many others thought 40+ was “old” for a main character, especially if she(!) was romantically intended. Some claimed most main characters in “contemporary fiction” were 20-30; there’d be no interest in anyone older. (I don’t know if they meant only in romantic fiction.) To feel the hurt I experienced, replace “...older; late 30s, 40’s or even 50+” with “...handicapped; mad, blind or even crippled” (I’m deliberately using discredited terms here). Not great, is it? Any better if we say: “disabled; mentally ill, visually impaired or even paraplegic” / “…gendered; trans, bisexual or even gay…” / “…minority ethnic; black, Asian, or even Jewish“? Cringing? But published fiction with minority characters doesn’t yet reflect the numbers in reality, despite exciting initiatives. Drawing attention to it is risky – (hello, trolls).

So I’ll stick to age prejudice, apparently also rife among authors. I went looking for positives: main characters in contemporary adult fiction who represent the “Seven Ages of Man” – “Ten Ages of People” works better nowadays. Obviously, some are too young for romance unless it’s illegal, but I’d argue that none are too old.

Narrator aged 0-10: Nutshell, by Ian McKewan. This narrator is under nought, he’s been in the womb for 8½ months, overhearing his mother’s dastardly plots and adoring her despite them (fuller review here.) Parts of my own second novel, currently touring the publishers, have a 7 year old narrator. I toyed with narrating it all by children, but limited vocabulary, references and understanding pose the problem that the range, however bright the child, could bore the reader. Dickens and Brontë manage it but they’re not contemporary and within their stories, their characters grow up.

Narrator and main characters aged 10-20: In The Dark Circle teenage twins from Jewish London are sent to a 1950s TB sanatorium, author Linda Grant showing contemporary pop culture through their eyes against the momentous social change caused by the establishment of the NHS. In Joanna Cannon’s much lighter The Trouble with Goats and Sheep her young heroines discover more about the adults in their small suburban close. There’s humour, wonder, and just enough fear to keep things interesting. For a teenage story from present day London, read the cheerful, haunting narration of 11 year old Harrison Opoku in Stephen Kelman’s Pidgeon English. You may need to get used to the idiom but stay with it – we ‘re right inside this naive, curious, endangered head as he lives his surroundings to the full. Romance? Oozing from the pores of Linda Grant’s characters, more in the form of pin ups for Cannon and Kelman.

Main characters aged 20-35: Need no further advocacy.

Main characters aged 35-50: To my surprise, Facebook was partly vindicated: there weren’t many on my shelves. Elizabeth Strout rescued me, with My Name is Lucy Barton.  Lucy is looking back through her life. She married young, her parents are old enough to die of natural causes and she has two just grown up daughters, so I’m assuming she’s in this age bracket. Small town Australia provided The Dressmaker, and again, circumstances suggest this heroine is between 35 and 50 years old. But clearly a lady never tells. Both books contain loving relationships (romance?) and much besides – social and economic points, parenting, travel, independence, memory, fear, survival, managing.  Rachel Cusk’s present age – 51 – puts her recent semi autobiographical fiction “Aftermath”, “Transit” and “Outline” here too. These intense, unnerving, truthful books cover the period after a woman with two young children leaves her husband. There’s loneliness, independence, grief, establishing a new home, family and other relationships.

Narrator aged 50-60 I haven’t yet read The Cost of Living  by Deborah Levy but it’s been reviewed everywhere. Like Cusk’s work, it’s variously described as semi-autobiographical, fiction, near fiction, memoir…but Levy’s ten years older. Will that make matters (even) harder, or does added experience help? Definitely fictional – fortunately – is Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, the narrator a bitter older teacher spying on a glamorous colleague.

As a teacher, I disliked the poor research of how schools function, but the characters certainly stay in the memory. It was a bestselling book and film. Heller was 38 when it was published in 2003; I wonder if she’d be more compassionate to the lonely older teacher now, perhaps allow her a meaningful love life?

Main characters aged 60-70 Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam follows the story of Shamas, his wife Kaukab and their extended family in Britain and Pakistan. These rounded characters disagree, love each other and find it hard to express, are shaped by their beliefs and experiences and try unsuccessfully to influence others. It’s all imbued with colonial India, partition, life for new and established immigrant groups, generational change and misunderstanding. These complex characters destroy stereotypes, in poetic language that, if you savour it, always tells you more. Less complex but equally moving is Rachel Joyce’s narrator in The Unlikely Pilgramage of Harold Fry. Recently retired Harold is a bit lost, until a call comes from his past and he tries to reconcile past and present loves.

Main characters aged 70-80   The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell looks back through Esme’s life, sixty years of it spent in a psychiatric hospital which is now closing. Within living memory, real women were incarcerated for the reason Esme was, but this book is not wholly bleak, oscillating between past and present, treasuring small moments of beauty and strangely full of love. I was going to suggest checking in at Deborah Moggach’s   The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel  (“These Foolish Things” renamed after the 2011 film). But the furious first Goodreads review reminded me of  Sarah Payne’s advice: “the authors job is not to make readers know what is a narrative voice and not the private view of the author.” The characters’ upsetting views are products of their time (memory tells me the film tones them down), but the reviewer’s right to be offended by Moggach’s cartoonish descriptions of India.

Main characters aged 80-90 In  Etta and Otto and Russell and James , Etta sets off on a long walk. Unlike Harold Fry, she’s not visiting a person, but aiming to see the sea for the first time. It’s over 3000 miles away, so the reader must suspend disbelief, but the poetic cadences lull you, the interdependencies and relationships cradle you, and the effect is deeply moving. Is there romance? Read and find out.

Main characters aged 90-100 Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. Is this still contemporary fiction, published in 1984? It’s very long, and views are divided over whether the male author can write the female voice. But those who love it, really do.

Main characters aged 100+ I didn’t love The 100 year old man who climbed out of the window and disappeared – the premise and beginning were great, but then it was yet another implausible walk, including historical figures and an elephant. All the rest is absurd, so why not an elephant too? Nonetheless, I welcome any bestseller about a healthy centenarian.

As a Facebook responder I’d like to hug said: I’d like to think I’m still in with a chance for my heroism to be exposed!! I wouldn’t want to stretch the bounds of reality too far, but I haven’t closed the door on chances for romance, either!

I’d love more suggestions for these categories so we can keep his hopes alive.

©Jessica Norrie 2018

My thanks to Jessica for demonstrating that those of us of a certain maturity are not to be discarded as protaganists in novels, or as writers of books, that might feature spirited individuals enjoying life to the full.

About Jessica Norrie

Jessica Norrie studied French literature at Sussex University, and trained as a teacher at Sheffield. Then she wandered into parenthood, told her now grown up children stories, and heard theirs. A qualified translator, she worked on an eclectic mix of material, from health reports on racehorses to harrowing refugee tales. She taught, full time, part time, adults, children, co-authored a text book and ran teacher training. In 2008 she was inspired with the idea for “The Infinity Pool” and it appeared as a fully fledged novel in 2015. Meanwhile she sings soprano and plays the piano, walks in the forest and enjoys living in and using London. She looks forward to writing more in the future.

Jessica Norrie

About the Book.

In this thoughtful novel set on a sun-baked island, Adrian Hartman, the charismatic director of the Serendipity holiday community, is responsible for ensuring the perfect mindful break, with personal growth and inner peace guaranteed. People return year after year to bare their souls. For some, Adrian IS Serendipity. But Adrian disappears, and with him goes the serenity of his staff and guests, who are bewildered without their leader. The hostility of the local villagers is beginning to boil over. Is their anger justified or are the visitors, each in a different way, just paranoid?

As romance turns sour and conflict threatens the stability of both communities, everyone has to find their own way to survive. This evocative story explores the decisions of adults who still need to come of age, the effect of well-intentioned tourism on a traditional community, and the real meaning of getting away from it all.

One of the recent reviews for the book

Well-written and acutely observed on 14 December 2017

Jessica Norrie’s novel, set on a sun-drenched island somewhere in the Mediterranean, examines the personalities and pitfalls encountered on the sort of package holiday that offers holistic life-skills and self-improvement courses. While practising yoga and suchlike activities, guests at the Serendipity resort, together with staff and, from time to time, local villagers, confront social, personal and philosophical challenges.Norrie has a confident narrative voice and a shrewd and sympathetic view of human nature, which makes her account of the goings-on at Serendipity entertaining as well as thought-provoking.

The central character is absent for much of the book: this means that the reader builds up a picture of him through the thoughts and observations of other characters, like a photographic negative – he is defined by his impact on others. When he re-emerges in his own right, his condition is so altered that we learn about other people from their decidedly contrasting (and sometimes unattractive) reactions.

The prose is occasionally lyrical – as a swimmer emerges from a pool, “The water softly shifted to a forgiving stillness” – and consistently accessible. The author is very good on the strains inherent in a globalized culture. The gulf between Serendipity’s staff and guests on the one hand and the local community on the other sours into violence, which may not be entirely surprising since, as one of the resort’s denizens observes, “Our food and our water supply are better than theirs, so we don’t eat in their restaurants or buy their fruit, except in town where it’s so touristy; most of us don’t even try to speak their language; we don’t talk to them when they come to our bar; we expect them to put up with us sunbathing naked on the beach in front of their grandmothers – and then we go on about how beautiful the country is and how fascinating the local traditions are.”

The author also has a clear-eyed view of the reality beneath picturesque Mediterranean society. A young woman considers “meeting and marrying some local man and giving birth within the time honoured local conventions, kicking just a little against restrictions on her sex because that was what each new generation did, then in turn chivvying her own daughters and unconditionally adoring her sons.”

The Infinity Pool is a well-written and acutely observed examination of diverse lives.

Read some of the many excellent reviews and buy the book: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jessica-Norrie/e/B01CEUZF26

and on Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Infinity-Pool-Jessica-Norrie-ebook/dp/B011RA8QZW

Find more reviews on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/3270629.Jessica_Norrie

Connect to Jessica

Blog: https://jessicanorrie.wordpress.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jessica.norrie.12
Twitter: https://twitter.com/jessica_norrie

My thanks again to Jessica Norrie and to you for dropping in.. your feedback is always welcome. Sally

35 thoughts on “Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – Jessica Norrie’s Literary Column – Can your protagonist be too old to be interesting?

  1. Pingback: Smorgasbord Magazine – Jessica Norrie – The Militant Negro™

  2. I think this is an interesting idea for a post. I have never thought about this at all. There are definitely books out there that feature older women in a romantic light. Mauve Binchy has featured older married women who get involved with another man.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Thanks for a great post. As a fifty-several-year-old woman, I’m concerned that this group is misrepresented in literature and the media. We seem to have fallen into a gap between the romantic fiction heroine and the stereotypical older sassy lady.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Great post, Jessica. I’m so pleased to read about someone else enjoying Maps for Lost Lovers. I was totally bowled over by it and read it several times. I once lent it someone who take forever to read it and ended up buying another copy.
    Another to add to the list is The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick. I’m not sure how old Arthur is but he’d been married for forty years when his wife died. Lovely book.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I’ve read a few, recently, including The Darkness by Ragan Jonasson. I have written characters of different ages but I’ve been thinking about this too and I’m writing a book with a central older character at the moment, although who knows! Thanks, Jessica.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Smorgasbord Weekly Round Up – Aretha Franklin, Peppercorns, Literary Ageism, Las Vegas | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

    • Actually that’s a good idea. I didn’t set out to make this post female only though and in fact it’s ended up both, but the assumption of older man/younger woman is certainly strong across all cultures.

      Like

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