Literature allows us to experience unfamiliar worlds and lives: we immerse ourselves in the stories of characters from other places and eras, and we walk alongside those experiencing triumph or tragedy on scales we can only imagine. But great novels can also illuminate our shared experiences. With these broad commonalities in mind, we now complete our Life Stages series. We covered Coming of Age in our January/February 2011 issue, First Love in May/June 2011, Careers in November/December 2011, Marriage in March/April 2012, Family Life in September/October 2012, and Midlife in January/February 2013. We now turn to Aging and Death. Although most of our books feature elderly protagonists, we also include a few novels about young lives ending. We focus on contemporary writers from the mid-20th century on, dividing our selections according to the novel's chronological setting. Our list is not comprehensive; we present some beloved classics, as well as works that have been overlooked in recent years.
Far Bright Star (2009)
By Robert Olmstead
In 1916, veteran cavalryman Napoleon Childs assembles a group of soldiers to hunt down Mexican bandit and revolutionary Pancho Villa. Their foray into Mexico ends in disaster when an independent mob brutally ambushes the group. Napoleon is left, naked and broken, to die under a sweltering desert sun, his only company a pistol with a single ominous bullet. As he struggles with his descent into madness, Napoleon meditates on his role as a son, a brother, and a soldier, questioning, all the while, the worth of human life. Olmstead's novel, which features some characters from Coal Black Horse (**** July/Aug 2007), is not for the faint of heart, but it is a masterful, mesmerizing portrait of one man facing oblivion. (**** SELECTION Sept/Oct 2009)
The Old Gringo (1985)
By Carlos Fuentes
In his 12th novel, Mexican writer and statesman Fuentes explores the corruption of Mexico's elite, the debasement of revolutionary ideals, and the tragic history of cultures in conflict. Loosely based on the disappearance of journalist Ambrose Bierce in Mexico in 1913, the novel also concerns death. In November 1913, Bierce, 71, crossed the U.S.-Mexican border at El Paso and disappeared without a trace. In his letters, he had written that he had the right to pick the manner of his death, and Fuentes suggests that the reason for the old gringo's last adventure south of the border was suicide: he crossed the border to die during the Mexican Revolution. The Old Gringo opens with a squad of guerrillas digging up his corpse; the gringo's backstory is then told through a prism of machismo, injustice, and betrayal.
1920s and 1930s
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1987)
By Fannie Flagg
Was there ever more of a feel-good novel than this one? Each week Evelyn Couch, a middle-aged housewife searching for meaning in her life, visits Ninny Threadgoode, an 86-year-old nursing home resident. As their friendship develops, Ninny shares her memories of her youth in Whistle Stop, Alabama, and the cafe that played such a large role in her life. The novel moves back and forth between the 1920s, when the inspiring Idgie Threadgoode, Ninny's future sister-in-law, ran the cafe, and the 1980s in Birmingham, where Ninny inspires Evelyn's new outlook on life. Besides women's aging, the novel also touches on implicit homosexuality, female friendship, and the acceptance of death.
Love in the Time of Cholera (1985)
By Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Garcia Marquez based this tragicomic story of unrequited love on his parents' strange, but not extraordinarily lengthy, courtship. In this classic, a vow of love takes 51 years, nine months, and four days to fulfill. In an unnamed Caribbean seaport city resembling Cartagena between the 1880s and the 1930s, the pathetic Florentino Ariza courts the youthful Fermina Daza, only to lose her to the wealthy Juneval Urbino. At the latter's funeral 51 years later, Ariza again declares his love to Fermina, precipitating a chain of events that reunites the couple near the end of their lives.
1940s/World War II
Moon Tiger (1987)
By Penelope Lively
* BOOKER PRIZE
On her deathbed, 76-year-old historian and former war correspondent Claudia Hampton, haunted by the ghosts of her past, decides to compose a history of the world using her own life as a focal point. Written from multiple perspectives--including that of a British tank officer, her brother, and her estranged daughter--and taking place before...