The best books keeping it real about older women

Who am I?

Literary agents often say they are looking for books about ‘quirky’ female protagonists. I’m more entertained by female characters who feel real to me. When I write, I make myself uncomfortable a lot of the time, trying to express the many ways people both disguise and reveal the truth. I blame my devotion to my parents for this because when I left home in Massachusetts for college in the foreign land of Indiana, studied for a year in China, then studied in Italy, then worked in Taiwan, then moved to Japan, and later to Singapore, I wrote them copious descriptive, emotional letters. My parents are gone now, but in a way, I’m still doing that.

I wrote...

Lillian on Life

By Alison Jean Lester,

Book cover of Lillian on Life

What is my book about?

Missouri-born Lillian has lived through the post-WWII decades of change in Munich, Paris, London, and, finally, New York. She has grappled with parental disappointment, society’s expectations, and the vagaries of love and sex. Now in her late fifties, she’s waking up next to her married lover and taking stock.

Lillian on Life paints an honest portrait of a hot-blooded woman whose reflections reverberate originally and unpredictably. Charming, sometimes heartbreaking, and never a stereotype, Lillian offers her own brand of wisdom. You won’t soon forget her.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is readers supported. When you buy through links on our website, we may earn an affiliate commission. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Must I Go

By Yiyun Li,

Book cover of Must I Go

Why this book?

There are similarities between this novel and mine – the woman at its heart is an American named Lilia, she’s had adventures, and she is taking stock. But then the fascinating differences begin. She is 81, not 57; she’s had marriages and children; above all, the narrative about Lilia is only one layer of the story, as within the book is another book, the diary of a man she had an affair with when very young, and she annotates his revelations with her own. This resonant novel’s strata – like limestone folds, the sediment of a life brought back to the surface – give Lilia, initially hard and sharp, more and more texture as the story unfolds.

Tirra Lirra by the River

By Jessica Anderson,

Book cover of Tirra Lirra by the River

Why this book?

I don’t often read books more than once, but this one I have, and I know I will read it again. The woman whose life is revealed this time is 70-year-old Nora Porteous. She has returned to her native Brisbane, Australia after having escaped it by marriage to Sydney, and having escaped that marriage to London. She now reflects wryly on how she developed throughout those years of hardship and joy as she also experiences the changes in the neighbourhood she ran from decades before. As we move through both her memories of the past and her experience of the present, the details that help us to understand her are extraordinary: ‘The man is unlocking the door. I have had to talk and smile too much in his car, and as I wait I consciously rest my face.’

The Queen of the Tambourine

By Jane Gardam,

Book cover of The Queen of the Tambourine

Why this book?

Misguided do-gooder Eliza Peabody lives in wealthy South London. In her middle age, Eliza is not just dedicated to volunteering in charities but also to volunteering her unsolicited advice to her neighbours in notes through their letterboxes. The book is consistently reviewed as both hilarious and poignant, but my memory of it above all includes one scene that was neither of those things. Instead, it seared me. The reveal crept up on cats’ paws, and I wasn’t at all prepared, which made the moment true for me, and unforgettable. If I read it when it came out in 1992, I would have been 26 years old. I must read it again now, at 56. No doubt I’ll remember the funny bits this time.

House of the Sun

By Meira Chand,

Book cover of House of the Sun

Why this book?

The main character in this novel is really a community – Hindu refugees who fled Pakistan for India at the time of Partition and ended up in a Bombay apartment block called Sadhbela. Many South Asian novels mix tragedy and comedy beautifully, and what I love about this one is how Chand mixes this cocktail within her female characters; as usual, there is more to laugh about in the older women than in the young. Like Gardam, Chand sneaks moving moments of self-awareness into her colourfully flawed protagonists. I’m particularly enamoured of illiterate, superstitious (but nonetheless married to a retired journalist) Mrs. Hathiramani. 

The Collected Stories

By William Trevor,

Book cover of The Collected Stories

Why this book?

Lots of men write women in middle and older age well – Jim Harrison’s short story called "The Woman Lit by Fireflies" is incredible, and of course, there’s Shakespeare. I’d like to point you to the Irish writer William Trevor, though. His collected stories begin with one called "A Meeting in Middle Age" in which the character of Mrs. da Tanka (who is seeking grounds for her second husband to divorce her by paying a man to spend a sexless night with her in a hotel bed) crackles with dissatisfaction. Trevor writes aging people with a tenderness that isn’t always immediately evident. You learn to wait for it, if you can stand the tension while you do and the heartache when it arrives.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Mumbai, mental disorders, and Ireland?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Mumbai, mental disorders, and Ireland.

Mumbai Explore 13 books about Mumbai
Mental Disorders Explore 86 books about mental disorders
Ireland Explore 107 books about Ireland

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Butcher Boy, Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle, and Breathless in Bombay if you like this list.