We recently heard that Joan Didion has written a memoir about the experience of aging, a subject that, though unavoidable for most of us, is often relegated to the better-left-ignored category of conversation. Though the aches and pains of aging may feel too far away for some of us, or simply too morbid to broach head-on, here are five works of fiction that elegantly capture the ups and downs of a life relived in retrospect.
As the title suggests, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s slim novel is the story of one man’s life via the people who have passed through it — particularly women, specifically prostitutes. Opening on the unnamed narrator’s 90th birthday, the book reveals the sad, startlingly honest musings of a mediocre journalist who has made love with hundreds of women but has never actually been in love. As he gazes upon the sleeping innocent with whom he has been paired for his birthday, he lapses into a spiral of reflection about the relationship between pursuit and fulfillment in all of its many incarnations.
Alice Munro’s heart-wrenching story about the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease on a longtime married couple is as much about the illness as it is about identity. Written with Munro’s characteristically direct but nuanced prose, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” has the twin qualities of specificity and sympathy, making for a relatable, if somewhat overwhelming, read. Originally published in The New Yorker, the story was later adapted by director/actress Sarah Polley into the film Away From Her.
Rabbit at Rest is the fourth and final installment in John Updike’s multi-Pulitzer Prize winning Rabbit series — Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), and Rabbit Is Rich (1981). The saga of Harry “Rabbit” Armstrong is a deft deconstruction of life in middle-class America, chronicling the titular protagonist’s development from high school basketball star to a grappling grandfather and husband. In this final chapter, we see many of the events addressed in earlier books through a new lens of conflict and occasional regret. Though Rabbit is not always the most sympathetic character, his life’s story is nevertheless familiar in all of its inevitable ups and downs.
Chronicling the last hours of Cesar Castillo, a washed up musician whose fame peaked after a brief appearance with his brother on an episode of I Love Lucy in the ‘50s, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love is a melancholic exploration of a singular experience that somehow represents many. Touching on intertwining themes of love and music, Cesar revisits everything from the obsessive heartache of his brother and collaborator, Nestor, to the highs and lows of the mambo craze to the changes within his native Cuba after the rise of Fidel Castro. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book was later adapted into the film The Mambo Kings.
Penelope Lively’s Booker Prize-winning Moon Tiger is a meditation on the fallibility of memory, the nuances of regret, and the piecemeal mosaic that makes up any individual experience of the world. While dying of cancer in a hospital bed at 76, the novel’s protagonist, Claudia Hampton, an unflappable history scholar and former war correspondent, decides to write “the history of the world as selected by Claudia: fact and fiction, myth and evidence, images and documents.” What follows is arguably one of the most slyly experimental and absorbingly narrated novels out there — and it will certainly make you reconsider how you choose to structure your own internal life story.