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 continue 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, and Family Life in September/October 2012. We now turn to Middle Age--the midlife crisis and its accompanying existential questions. We focus on contemporary writers from the mid-20th century on, and we divide our selections according to the novel's chronological setting. Our list is by no means comprehensive; we present some beloved classics, as well as novels that have been overlooked in recent years.
Readers will notice that the majority of our selections feature men caught in the throes of midlife crises. Where are all the women? We know they must be out there, and yet ... As much as we tried to find writers writing about women, we observed that even many female authors write about men struggling through midlife crises. Surely midlife for women means more than a good dose of Botox and hormone replacement therapy? Certainly the stereotype of a male midlife crisis prevails in contemporary fiction--and usually results in some sort of easily dramatized external actions involving cars and younger women. Perhaps women who experienced midlife in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s faced so many traditional choices and constraints that they transitioned from adolescents to mature women seemingly overnight, with midlife struggles that were internal, repressed, or cerebral (and therefore perhaps more difficult to capture in fiction)? We really don't know the reasons for this kind of "literary" gender gap. But the novels that do highlight women in midlife--particularly modern-day women after the transformative 1960s--seem to address many of the anxieties about career, family, and aging familiar to men. Just a theory. Let us know your thoughts.
By William Kennedy
* PULITZER PRIZE
* MODERN LIBRARY BEST 100 NOVELS #92
Ironweed is the best known of Kennedy's Albany Cycle, which covers more than a century of Albany's history as it follows different families in the corrupt New York state capital. Preceded by Legs (1975) and Billy Phelan's Greatest Game (1978), Ironweed features Francis Phelan, an alcoholic former baseball player who fled his native Albany after accidentally killing his infant son. After nine years of poverty-stricken life on the road, he returns, repentant and ready to make peace with his family. Unsurprisingly, he cannot escape the ghosts of his past.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)
By Muriel Spark
* TIME MAGAZINE BEST 100 NOVELS
* MODERN LIBRARY 100 BEST NOVELS, #76
"Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she will be mine for life," says the elegant Miss Brodie, the 1930s Edinburgh schoolmistress who is devoting her "prime" to six hand-picked, 10-year-old students. Her devotion is quite unorthodox; whether her pupils know their history she considers irrelevant as long as they can appreciate art, Mussolini, and her personal love life and travels. Though Miss Brodie enriches the girls' lives, she exerts extraordinary control over them--from soliciting one in the bed of one of her lovers to engaging another as her personal spy. Though she opens up her girls' lives with her unconventional ways, at the end of their school years, one of her students will betray her, and Miss Brodie learns that "it's only possible to betray where loyalty is due."
World War II
The End of the Affair (1951)
By Graham Greene
Set in London during and after World War II, this short novel established Greene's international reputation. Based on the author's affair with Lady Catherine Walston, it is told through multiple flashbacks by Maurice Bendrix, a burgeoning novelist in World War II London. When he falls in love with Sarah Miles, the wife of an important civil servant, passion and jealousy wrack their affair. Then a bomb tears apart Bendrix's flat, and Sarah takes her lover for dead. When he is found alive, she breaks off the affair with no explanation. Two years later, Bendrix hires a private detective to find out if Sarah has taken a new lover. But through her diary, he learns the more shocking truth.
The Winter of Our Discontent (1961)
By John Steinbeck
Ethan Allen Hawley, a Harvard-educated man whose family's glory days have passed, works as a grocery clerk; his materialistic, status-conscious wife and his children resent their fall from the New England aristocracy. Yearning to please his family but not wishing to compromise his honesty and integrity, Ethan, against his better judgment, concocts a plan to regain the wealth his family once knew. Steinbeck stated that he wrote this classic to address the moral degeneration of American culture in the 1950s and 1960s. The novel, about two clashing Americas--a morally staid Puritan one now passing away and a materialistic corrupt one now emerging--aptly explores how one man in the prime of life trades a life of goodness for one of deception and moral deterioration.
The Women's Room (1977)
By Marilyn French
The Women's Room, thought to be semiautobiographical, is one of the most influential novels of the modern feminist movement. When it first appeared, it raised controversy for its pessimistic depiction of women's lives, though it became an international best seller. In 1950s America, Mira Ward, a traditional young woman trapped in a traditional marriage to a suburban doctor, slowly experiences a feminist awakening as she...