“The Book of Old Ladies: Celebrating Women of a Certain Age in Fiction” is the work of Dr. Ruth O. Saxton, and she deserves our admiration just for finishing the project. Her study was underway fifteen years ago when she suffered a traumatic brain injury from an auto accident. Recovery has been long, and as she regained her ability to read and returned to the texts she had chosen before her injury, she discovered these novels anew with a greater urgency and a “more sympathetic and more critical” eye.
Now she presents us with a thoughtful collection of her reviews, six each in five chapters, plus a bonus piece at the end. The reviews cover 31 books written within the past 100 years by accomplished women writers. Saxton is looking for satisfying representations of women confronting old age and mortality, the fictional women we badly need. “The Book of Old Ladies,” she says, “encourages readers, young and old, to think critically about the ramifications of fiction in all of our lives, inspiring dialogue and ultimately more profound and plentiful storylines . . . that will feature older women as the fascinating, dynamic, and complicated subjects they truly are.”
Each chapter has an introduction, a conclusion, and a discussion of the ways that aging women have been portrayed in these novels. Fiction, Saxton reminds us, “sets a cultural tone for what we believe to be true about ourselves.” She shares the results of her search for models that give her hope and energy for facing inevitable decline while making the most of living.
But she begins with the treacly clinging to romance that is a common fictional trope about women at the end of their lives. She discusses writers as revered as Katherine Anne Porter, May Sarton, Tillie Olsen, and Doris Lessing, all of whom create female characters who miss their own lives because of that sweet myth. With evident passion, the author rejects that simplistic representation. She sees richer and more potent possibilities for women at the end of life, and in chapters that follow shows us works that address such subjects as “Sex after Sixty” (including Toni Cade Bambara, Mary Gordon, and Alice Munro) and “Defying Expectations” (with Vita Sackville-West, Jean Davis Okimoto, and Sena Jeter Naslund). Saxton is looking for authors who recognize the significance of older women, their impacts and endless possibilities. Her review of the literature has resulted in a remarkable collection of titles and a memorable group of female characters.
Though I was disappointed at the paucity of quotes from the novels that Saxton reviews, “The Book of Old Ladies” proved to contain thoughtful perspectives on those novels I have read and is an inspiration to read the books that are new to me. As a woman “of a certain age,” I appreciate the author’s effort to redefine being an older woman, and her search for how best we can make the most of it. The novels she describes here make a good start on a reader’s guide to that challenge.