14 Books on the Questions and Contemplations of Mid-Life

14 Books on the Questions and Contemplations of Mid-Life



It can be difficult to decide what middle age is, much less what books on the subject should cover. Depending on who you ask, mid-life may begin as early as 35 and end as late as 65. And experiences of the period vary widely based on many factors; for example, whether or not a person has (or wants to have) children, where they are professionally or in life. But when it comes to books about those in middle age, the particular topics that emerge often have to do with aging itself and a growing understanding of the limits of human existence. In accordance with the concept of the mid-life crisis, it’s in middle age that many begin to grapple with the question of whether it’s “too late” — to be a parent, to excel in one’s chosen career path, to make significant changes to one’s personal life. Middle age can also be a time of reflecting on the past, of questioning, from a more mature perspective, the choices one made long ago, and the current cycles and habits those decisions have established. All of this makes for philosophically rich considerations that many authors turn into literary gold, as evidenced by this list we’ve compiled of recent books about people in middle age.

Topics covered include mental health, infertility, illness, love in mid-life, how one’s personal decisions impact others, the search for meaning, the everyday realities of marriage, the legitimacy of choosing a childless or unmarried life, and many others. All of the books come recommended by our reviewers and some have reading guides provided by the publisher to help build fulfilling book club discussions. Whether you fall into the middle-age range yourself or are somewhere on either side of it, we hope you enjoy these selections.




It. Goes. So. Fast.


It. Goes. So. Fast.: The Year of No Do-Overs by Mary Louise Kelly

Hardcover Apr 2023. 240 pages

Published by Henry Holt and Company

Mary Louise Kelly’s son James is entering his final year at home and, recognizing how often she has prioritized work over family, she commits to putting family first for the time she has left. Kelly, known and beloved as an interviewer and anchor at NPR, proves herself to also be a sensitive memoirist. In these pages, she brilliantly represents all mothers who have ever struggled with work-family life balance. Kelly knows how to ask the questions that get to the heart of the matter. Here, she turns those skills on herself. As she tries to be fully present in James’ last year at home, she reflects on her entire journey as a parent and a journalist. Kelly’s beautiful book begins with the commitment to live in the moment, but as she struggles to keep that vow, she discovers that there really isn’t a single moment; that, in fact, all the moments of our parenthood, childhood and later lives are connected, shedding light on each other. (Kathleen Basi)

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The Birdcatcher


The Birdcatcher
by Gayl Jones

Paperback Sep 2023. 216 pages

Published by Beacon Press

The Birdcatcher has a deceptively simple and darkly humorous premise: A woman tries again and again to kill her husband; each time he has her committed to a mental hospital, and each time he eventually checks her out of said hospital just to start the cycle over again. It’s narrated by a third party, the couple’s friend Amanda Wordlaw, a novelist and travel writer who is staying with them in Ibiza on some sort of extended holiday. Amanda is a somewhat unreliable narrator; her entanglement with Ernest and Catherine robs her of perspective and she rarely says anything direct about herself. Interspersed with her present-day observations of her friends are her memories, which ricochet through anecdotes involving Ernest and Catherine, the dissolution of her own marriage, her brief relationship with a man who was once a healer but gave it up when he was unable to heal himself. We see impressions of Amanda’s life in passing and she is always, it seems, fleeing. (Lisa Butts)

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Vladimir


Vladimir: A Novel
by Julia May Jonas

Paperback Jan 2023. 256 pages

Published by Avid Reader Press

Jonas’s narrator certainly isn’t a mouthpiece for all older women, but the schism between generations—how they conceive of power and sexuality; what they want and demand from relationships and from art—is at the center of the novel. There’s something naive, almost anti-intellectual, in the way her students operate, she thinks; they rely on their feelings and surface-level analyses of representation instead of more substantial interpretation. But is there, indeed, something to the social and artistic reevaluation going on, despite how mobbish and policing it seems to her? She is challenged throughout the novel by younger thinkers, including her adult daughter, Sidney, who returns home in tears after a breakup with her girlfriend; and Edwina, a Black student who (briefly) forces the narrator to stop mindlessly referring to herself as an “old white woman” and actually confront how whiteness functions in the department. (Chloe Pfeiffer)

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Flesh & Blood


Flesh & Blood: Reflections on Infertility, Family, and Creating a Bountiful Life: A Memoir by N. West Moss

Hardcover Oct 2021. 320 pages

Published by Algonquin Books

I had to have a hysterectomy years ago, three years before I married. Moss’s journey, so honestly and poignantly shared, is unlike anything I’ve ever read before on the subject (Laura C). Moss has a wonderful, straightforward way of telling us her story, the trials and distress of her problem, and her successful recovery (Marion C). I have to admit, it took me a while to pick up this book…it is not my usual genre and I was afraid I could not relate or would be overwhelmed with sadness. Instead it felt as though I was on a weekend retreat with a friend I had lost touch with years before, where I could be encouraged and uplifted by her self-awareness, confidence and vulnerabilities as she leisurely told me of her experiences while we shared a cocktail (Barbara P).

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Whereabouts


Whereabouts
by Jhumpa Lahiri

Paperback Mar 2022. 176 pages

Published by Vintage

Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts has seen numerous comparisons to Second Place by Rachel Cusk. These two short novels, with American release dates a week apart, are both narrated from the point of view of an unnamed middle-aged woman reflecting on her life circumstances. But while Cusk’s story is a fraught, frenzied work about a character bemoaning her lack of freedom, Lahiri’s book is lower-key in presentation: It follows a melancholic professor living in a (presumably Italian) city, a solitary person looking in on the lives of others, wandering on the fringes of family and relationships. Lahiri’s protagonist is a moody storyteller, but it is the bitterness of her emotions that shocks her surroundings to life, and even her more anxious and disturbing thoughts contain a certain strange beauty. (Elisabeth Cook)

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Brood


Brood
by Jackie Polzin

Paperback Jul 2022. 240 pages

Published by Anchor Books

Brood: a “hatch of young birds” or a “human family, children.” To brood: to “meditate on.” These definitions from the Concise Oxford Dictionary indicate just how perfect the title of Jackie Polzin’s first novel is. It is literally about keeping chickens, but it is also a wryly reflective first-person narrative from a woman who hoped for children but couldn’t have them. While feeling broody, she’s brooding over a variety of everyday fears and concerns. (Rebecca Foster)

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Divide Me By Zero


Divide Me By Zero
by Lara Vapnyar

Paperback Nov 2020. 368 pages

Published by Tin House Books

Divide Me By Zero begins with an encounter between the narrator, Katya Geller, a 40-something mother of two, and a fish seller in Staten Island from whom Katya is buying caviar. “I was brought up in the Soviet Union, where caviar was considered a special food reserved for children and dying parents,” Katya says. The fish seller, another Soviet immigrant, understands Katya’s meaning and the two lock eyes and begin to cry. This moment of intense connection between two strangers charts the course for Lara Vapnyar’s frank and emotionally honest story of love and loss. (Rachel Hullett)

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Find Me


Find Me
by Andre Aciman

Paperback Aug 2020. 272 pages

Published by Picador

Can the euphoria of first love ever be recreated? Is it worth sacrificing something sturdy to chase after something fleeting? Was what Elio and Oliver had in Call Me By Your Name any less real simply because it was so brief? Find Me is perhaps more contemplative than its predecessor, but ultimately no less enchanting, and arguably even more affecting. The unhappiness, emotional distance, and unspent desire that these characters must first grapple with in order to attain closure makes the conclusion all the more gratifying. (Rachel Hullett)

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Less


Less
by Andrew Sean Greer

Paperback May 2018. 272 pages

Published by Back Bay Books

Arthur Less, the main character of Andrew Sean Greer’s delightful comic novel, Less, is a forty-nine year old gay man. He is a writer, and a moderately successful one, but when his story opens, Arthur is running away. To be precise, he is running away from the wedding of his former lover, Freddy. Rather than attend this event, Arthur has seized on an array of invitations to small-time literary jobs – interviewing another author, attending an awards ceremony, teaching a creative class for a number of weeks, even being a food critic – that will take him across the US and the world. Certainly hapless, at times helpless, but consistently lovable, Arthur Less’s global misadventures are a pleasure to read. (Kate Braithwaite)

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Long Black Veil


Long Black Veil
by Jennifer Finney Boylan

Paperback Jan 2018. 320 pages

Published by Broadway Books

Judith is in her mid-fifties, married, with a son, and living a content life in Maine. Suddenly, she is forced to face the fallout of choices made in her late twenties. Although the murder mystery is central to the plot, I found Judith’s character struggles to be compelling, thought-provoking and, as someone of a similar age, authentic. Just as adolescence is a time to shift from childhood into adulthood, middle age is also a significant milestone and a cusp between the past and future. Judith is facing her own mortality as she looks back at her youth and self-evolution. As much as young adulthood feels like a time of endless opportunity, middle age can be a reminder to make the most of one’s limited time ahead. It’s when choices must be made with the firm understanding that our personal decisions impact the lives of loved ones. I’d call this story a coming of—middle—age story. (Sarah Tomp)

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Spinster


Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own
by Kate Bolick

Paperback Apr 2016. 336 pages

Published by Broadway Books

“Whom to marry, and when will it happen — these two questions define every woman’s existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn’t practice…men have their own problems; this isn’t one of them.” This provocative pronouncement is how Kate Bolick opens her combination memoir Spinster, which is in large part an attempt to imagine the outcomes if women were to refuse to define themselves in terms of those two questions — in short, to imagine a different narrative for the shape of their lives. Bolick tells her own story and those of the “foremothers” who have inspired her to live her life the way it has evolved. (Norah Piehl)

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I Refuse


I Refuse
by Per Petterson

Paperback May 2016. 288 pages

Published by Graywolf Press

Per Petterson’s I Refuse is as tightly written as its stout title suggests. It is not a story with a complicated plot, but rather a story of complicated emotions stemming from a chance encounter between two childhood friends, Tommy and Jim, who have not spoken in thirty years. The chance moment sends each man back to delve into their past friendship and its demise, and the story is revealed through a slow peeling back of the layers of time, jumping between perspectives and decades. Now middle-aged and lonely – Jim struggling with a vague health impediment, and Tommy secluded by his lucrative career – they begin to face again some of the complicated relationships of their youth. (Darcie R.J. Abbene)

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Us


Us: A Novel
by David Nicholls

Paperback Jun 2015. 416 pages

Published by Harper

After nearly thirty years of marriage, the middle-aged biochemist who narrates Us has learned a few things from his artist wife. One is that you should always carry a novel when you go on a journey. “In the early days of our relationship,” he recalls, “I neglected to take a book on to the plane. It was not a mistake I would make again.” His wife is startled by the lapse. “I’ve always wondered who those freaks are who don’t read novels.” He imagines a slip in her affections, as if she is asking herself whether she can “really love a man who doesn’t see the point of made-up stories.” She begins to provide him novels, stories that “will have won some award but won’t be too complicated,” and he reads them out of love. Us is that kind of book, a pleasurable read with short, comic chapters that also treads on satisfying emotional territory. Douglas Petersen, the biochemist, is laying out the story of his marriage and family at a crisis point. Just as his only son, Albie, is poised to leave the nest (for art school), his wife, Connie, has come to the realization that the “marriage has run its course.” (Jennifer G Wilder)

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The Woman Upstairs


The Woman Upstairs
by Claire Messud

Paperback Feb 2014. 320 pages

Published by Vintage

Nora is not married and, at forty-one, is an angry, bitter woman reflecting on her years as an elementary teacher at Appleton Elementary School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As a child, Nora dreamed of becoming an artist, not a teacher. Nora’s mother, who chose to be a stay-at-home mom, thereby depending on her husband for life’s most basic needs, refused to let her daughter fall into a similar trap. What exactly is art? How much does one have to sacrifice to reach one’s life goals? Is such a pursuit even worth it? And what happens when the best you can offer is merely mediocre? The Woman Upstairs will have you realize again that every person is a product of an extremely complex set of circumstances – parental expectations, individual drive, and opportunities lost or gained. This book will speak to almost everyone who discovers that the life we lead now is not quite the one we set out to carve for ourselves. (Poornima Apte)

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