In praise of…Books about old women with fascinating lives

A few months ago, I read the very entertaining Woman at 1,000 Degrees, by Hallgrímur Helgason and discovered that I had just found a new kind of story that I couldn’t get enough of—so it’s wonderful that I had the pleasure of reviewing two more: The Dictionary of Animal Languages, by Heidi Sopinka, and Refuge, by Merilyn Simonds. This trio of stories gave me characters who lived through exciting times, had plenty of unfinished business to fill out a last chapter, and have interestingly off-kilter perspectives on morality, and who .

3ced5ed026857123c437e51495548d5cThese novels feature a woman at the end of a long life. Some catalyst sends them down memory lane, which is interesting enough on its own to keep the book from being one long flashback. Depending on how old they are, there’s a good chance they’ve lived through parts of the twentieth century I love to learn more about: the Russian Revolution, World War II, etc. Historical fiction is, if I had to pick one, my favorite genre. I always love a front row to history, but safely behind the cover of a book.

But I think what gets me about these characters is the way they look at the world after their many decades. They’ve learned from their experiences. While these stories can be melancholy, I find that they’re extraordinarily rich in emotional depth. In the case of Refuge, the main character learned that going against the grain was the only way for her to find happiness and love—but that it would also mean giving up some kinds of more conventional happiness. In The Dictionary of Animal Languages, the main character learned that she has an absolute right to make up her own rules. But however much these women might transgress, I don’t think they come close to how subversive the protagonist of Woman at 1,000 Degrees is. Seriously, Woman at 1,000 Degrees is a rip.

One last thing that I like about theses books is that they feature protagonists who aren’t children (which I very rarely read because writing accurate sounding child characters) or adults in the prime of their life. We get to see those parts of the characters’ lives, plus we get to see almost the full span. We see them discover what brings them joy and meaning, what makes their hearts beat faster, and also what they find most important after every other consideration gets dropped along the way. It makes a nice change from books with happily ever afters before the age of 30 or thrillers full of characters who do ridiculously athletic things without a thought as to what it will do to their knees.

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