At twenty-nine, I seem to have passed a threshold, and suddenly find myself regularly reading about grown-up protagonists who are in fact younger than me. This is disconcerting; as a life long bookworm, many of my role models are fictional and books, both novels and nonfiction, have helped shape my very character. What to do when all of these potential role models are suddenly younger than yourself? After all, every year I get older, while the books around me stay static.

I remember turning twenty-two, realising I was now older than both Emma and Lizzie, who I met for the first time when I was thirteen, and feeling such despair. They’d managed to sort their lives out by now, whereas I seemed to be getting older and feeling more muddled than ever. Fortunately, these days I have a more relaxed view, having let go of my teenage self’s plans for my twenties, and when I turned twenty-eight and became officially older than all of Jane Austen’s heroines, I took it in stride. And yet, lately I’ve been noticing, so many of the heroes and heroines of fiction, looking to find themselves, seem to have their crises finished and endings achieved before their thirtieth birthday. I’m not sure how I feel about this; when I was fifteen, sure, thirty sounded old. At the time, I imagined I’d have everything essentially sorted by then, and simply be working to improve it; to switch to metaphor, I was sure I’d have all of the clay assembled and basic shape roughed out and spend my thirties adding the fine details and embellishments to the vase of my life. This is certainly not the case, and I suspect when I find myself on the threshold of my forties and fifties and sixties, I will still not be quite formed, not yet ready to place in the kiln.

Of course, books have to end somewhere, and the traditional story arc is so terribly satisfying for a reason. But where are the stories of the thirty-something year olds? We’re too young for midlife crises but too old for young adult ‘leaving the nest’ type plots. Am I just not reading the correct books? I can already find myself undergoing a bit of a transformation, reminding myself that I can certainly find role models who are younger than me. And yet…I’ve always found it more natural to have role models older than myself. I’m sure such books exist; I’ll just have to start drawing up lists. I seem to mention Bujold in every post lately, but I will just say that one of the aspects of the Vorkosigan Saga I love best is that it covers 12+ years in the main characters’ lives and really shows them growing from eighteen-year-olds to forty-year-olds. The Miles from the early books is not like the Miles from the later books, and the transformation feels utterly organic, and deeply comforting, since this is a transformation we all undergo. All of my life, books have lead the way, and I don’t want to lose that now.

Has anyone else noticed this? Have any thoughts you care to share? Or books to recommend of course! Luckily for me, Niccolo, the protagonist of Dorothy Dunnett’s second historical series, just turned thirty in The Unicorn Hunt, which means I have at least three books to watch someone older than myself try to navigate life. Although luckily, mine has far fewer challenges, and my friends and family support me instead of secretly worrying I’m evil. Poor Nicholas.

18 thoughts on “On Reading While Growing Up

  1. Speaking as someone quite a bit older than yourself, I do believe I understand you. I have spent the last two years discovering for the first time many so-called children’s classics. I say, ‘so-called’ because as a just-turned-60 year old, I am finding so much of myself in these books.

    For the last 2 years I’ve been touched by The Wind in the Willows, The Secret Garden, The Hobbit and then I discovered L.M. Montgomery. Yes, it took me this long to read Anne of Green Gables. I have absolutely fallen in love with Montgomery’s writing of Nature personification as portrayed in the Anne series, but especially in the Emily of New Moon series.

    How timely that I just wrote a blog post about this today πŸ™‚ What I get from these books, I think, are remembering the inventiveness of my childhood imagination I discarded as I grew up and let the left side of my brain take over the right. While I am just in the middle of the second Emily book and I don’t know what becomes of her creativity and imagination as an adult, I have declared her my new role model, anyway!

    Besides the above, I think any advice I might give you better be taken sitting down: reading will always unsettle you a bit, remind you of something deeply buried. But that is a good thing. And I think you know this!

    So, I wish you well as you discover new lives and models that will turn your head and give you new paths to travel πŸ™‚

    1. Oh I love quite a few children’s books, both those that I first read as a child and those I discover for the first time now (have you tried The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making?). I agree that reading such books connects me to everything good about my childhood self…it’s just that I’d *also* like to read books with older protagonists, if that makes sense.

      And yes, I agree that reading is always a bit unsettling. πŸ™‚

      Thanks for the comment & advice & well wishes; I’ll pop over and read your post!

  2. Yes. It’s crazy how we thought life would be sorted by now (whenever now is, since I’m quite a bit older than you!), but I think we never actually get it all figured out.

    I think it’s difficult, too, because life paths diverge so much after those coming of age years β€” even if a character is your age, are they relatable to you, since, say, they’re married and have kids? Or for me, the protag’s kids are teenagers? I think the last book I read where the main characters were women in their 30s where that stood out to me was about an affair, getting a divorce, which I don’t really want to read.

    There ARE books with older characters, though. Maisie Dobbs comes to mind. How old is Harriet Vane? Cormoran Strike isn’t in his 20s. Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody has a grown child. Anne Tyler is known for writing about older characters. The detectives in the first three Tana French books (all of them I’ve read so far) are all in the 30s, I think. They do exist.

    1. Hmm: that’s a good point about life paths diverging! Your comment made me realise that I’m not so much looking for characters whose lives mirror my own (since that would be almost impossible) as I am looking for characters who have a greater store of life experience and sense of self to draw on, if that makes sense. I’m drawn to more mature characters, although I still enjoy younger protagonists too!

      I’m pretty sure Harriet Vane is 27 in the first book, which puts her in her early thirties by the last of them. I’ll look into Anne Tyler & Cormoran Strike! Unfortunately I don’t get along terribly well w Tana French or Amelia Peabody. You know, if I plotted my reading out by age, I’d probably see the characters’ ages are fairly diverse. Maybe I just notice that there are quite a few younger than me because it’s such a change from being in my early twenties, when only teenagers were younger?

  3. At 53, I’d say just sit back and enjoy the ride. When we’re thirty we feel so old, but we still have all our life ahead of us! At 53, I can look back and think 30 is nothing. Anyway, do we ever really have everything sorted out? One of the great things about life is that you never know – even when we are 60, 70 or 80 life is still sure to hold great surprises and disappointments – just take it as it comes! XX

  4. I’ve had similar feelings as well lately, it’s somewhat unnerving when you’re suddenly older than all these characters that you’ve grown up reading!
    I turned 30 this year, and I agree, it’s sometimes hard to find characters that are at a similar place in life. You do get the feeling that at this point you are supposed to have things figured out and know exactly what you want or at least be on the road and close to getting to there, but thats just not exactly the case for me and I think, probably, for most people. I feel I’m still a work in progress πŸ™‚
    But I do enjoy revisiting favorite books and rereading characters I really identified with as a younger person. It’s interesting see how viewpoints change with time. I guess that’s one of the bright spot with getting older, you get to see your favorite books through a new lens!

    1. I’m so glad you feel the same way Charlotte! And yes, I’m certainly a work in progress, as are my similarly aged friends. πŸ™‚

      I love revisiting old favourites too; last year I reread Gaudy Night and while I’ve always loved it (and the whole Harriet Vane/Peter Wimsey series), it resonated with me differently than it did when I was sixteen. I really enjoy getting older, so I think it has many bright spots, and rereading books with new perspectives is definitely one of them!

  5. I just noticed today, while reading the back blurb of a book, that when books talk about people in their early 40s that I am closer in age to that demographic than those that talk about people in their early 20s. That was really jarring and strange to me as I certainly don’t feel like I’m rapidly approaching middle age!

    I wonder if the reason you tend to find most of your heroines young is because you tend to gravitate towards classics and older fiction? Because of my book reviewing for BookPage, I read a lot of contemporary American fiction and I find that actually many authors are now focusing on characters in their late 20s and 30s. I just finished up Sloane Crosley’s THE CLASP, which you might enjoy (especially as it has strong ties to the de Maupassant story, “The Necklace”) and it deals with people in their late 20s trying to find their place in the world. Another chunkster that was released this year that you must have heard of, A LITTLE LIFE, tracks the evolution of a friendships and relationships of a group of four men who meet as freshman in college, but the book spans decades (be aware, however, that it is a very dark/grim book… I really loved it, but I know other readers of yours did not!). EVERYBODY RISE is another 2015 release that is, in some ways, an homage to Wharton, so you might find that interesting too. I’m not sure if you ever read WILD by Cheryl Strayed, but that is the (true!) tale of a woman looking for herself in her mid-to-late 20s. I don’t know that you would find any of the characters in any of those books role models per se, but they may still be relatable (to varying degrees) to you nonetheless. It does seem like most major milestones are delayed in today’s world, but by reading contemporary authors, I think it’s still entirely possible to find your peer group (as it were) in novels and non-fiction.

    That said, I suppose there is something bittersweet and unsettling about realizing you’ve surpassed in age (and perhaps life experience too) characters you looked up to as a child. Oddly, I think the one character who has thrown me for a loop was Bridget Jonesβ€”I discovered her my final year of high school, still with no idea of what my 20s might hold. When I realized one day that I was not only older than Bridge, but no longer a singleton either but a “smug married” (to use her own words!), I did feel a bit sad, not just for leaving her behind, but because it was a testament to how much I myself had changed in the intervening years as well.

    P.S. I have no idea whether the protagonist in FOREIGN AFFAIRS by Alison Lurie is at all enviable, but that was the blurb I was reading that gave me a jolt about my own age. It won the Pulitzer and involves the world of academe and a 50yo woman, so it sounds promising to me!

    1. I’m giggling at your impression of my reading! I would say at least 60-80% of what I read was published in this century. πŸ™‚ But I don’t read a lot of mainstream, non-genre, white-authored, contemporary US fiction. I find myself easily annoyed by a lot of ‘literary’ type books these days; I’m sure it’s a phase but there you go. For instance, I just googled The Clasp and was immediately horrified by the cover and the blurbs and convinced I wouldn’t like it just based on that. I will push past that horror if you still recommend it of course, but I think what Heather & Hannah have mentioned about older protagonists having different lifestyles might be part of the issue too, an aspect I hadn’t considered before. I’m not much interested in yuppies entering their thirties, as terrible as that sounds. Maybe *that’s* the issue. The people nominally most like me (college educated, late twenties/early thirties, etc.) throw into stark relief how different my life and sense of self are due to my health/life circumstances. And since I can’t control those circumstances, perhaps I shy away from reading about yuppies to insulate myself emotionally? I don’t know, I just know I have a gut reaction that says “Eek! No!”. Perhaps I’m happier looking at the ‘themes’ of living and being part of humanity sidelong, through a historic or speculative or international lens.

      Also, I find a lot of currently-published ‘literary’ fiction bleak. I can’t really blame these authors, since I find our current environment pretty bleak as well, but the older I get the less I seem able to *handle* that bleakness. My skin’s getting thinner, not thicker! Although it’s not so much the bleak circumstances as the bleakness of the characters that disturbs me…so many are portrayed as shallow or helpless or leading pointless lives whose greatest joy is a sense of nostalgia for their glory days. And I just don’t like spending time with characters like that. One of the things I treasure most about getting older is the ability to really savour the constrained life that I lead, instead of constantly longing for something more. To dig in deeply to the handful of things I can do, and find constant delight and interest within them. I don’t see that sense of contentment reflected very often in current fiction (I find it more in essays, especially those by middle-aged women). I know I’m generalising about an entire genre at once, so feel free to suggest some books that I should read to prove I’m wrong! πŸ™‚ I’m to engage in a conversation, not shut you down, so I hope that comes across! It’s a bit trickier online than in person.

  6. This is definitely true, but I don’t think I pay a tremendous lot of attention to it. It’s good, I think. I love not being a kid anymore. I love not being an adolescent. I love not being in college. So I guess if I do notice how much younger the protagonists in my books are then me, I feel superior and joyous that I’m not in those dretful phases anymore.

    (They weren’t uniformly dretful! But with each passing year I feel smarter and better equipped to live in this world and MOREOVER I am in total control of my own cookie consumption. Nom nom nom nom.)

    1. Yes! I love all of those things too, and was mentally saying ‘ditto’ to every sentence! I’ve realised now that I didn’t make that clear in this post, although I meant to. I must’ve edited too much; I kept going on tangents about aging instead, and I wanted to keep this about books. lol

      The times I notice are exactly when I’m feeling superior/joyous and suddenly wish I was reading a more mature character instead. But I don’t think I always notice, just lately.

  7. I couldn’t agree more with what Jenny said! I understand what you mean, but like Jenny I don’t really notice much. I DO notice, though, that a lot of books that deal with women in their thirties, at least the ones that I have been reading, are very centered on either the woman’s life as a mother, wife, or career woman – it’s almost as if those three things, or a combination of them, are the only choices thirtyish women can make about how they want to spend their lives. Which, as we know, is untrue. But maybe I’m just reading the wrong books.

    I’m with Jenny, though! I feel incredibly happy with the fact that I’m done with being a kid, a teenager, and a college student. I feel more centered and at peace with my life now than I ever have in the past. And that’s not to say that I feel settled, or sorted, or anything like that – I am open to any changes or different paths life might throw at me – just that I feel overall content and glad to be where I am, and who I am, right now.

    1. I’m with you & Jenny too! Yes to more centered and peaceful if not settled. Isn’t it a great feeling?

      Now that’s interesting; I’ve been reading a lot of genre lit this year, so it features more women in alternative lifestyles since they’re dealing with the supernatural. πŸ˜‰ But I wonder if part of why I don’t read many books with thirtysomething women is that their plot descriptions of mother/wife/career (none of which are relevant to me) make me think I couldn’t connect? Hmmmm.

  8. It’s weird but I find myself now not looking for characters like me (40 and a mother) in books but rather ones like Z, tweens having fantastic adventures. I don’t know if it’s living vicariously or just trying to connect with what might be going on in his head (he doesn’t talk much). I don’t know if I will ever “read my age”. πŸ˜‰

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