Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

18 Books With Older Protagonists

For a long time, the only books with older protagonists I read depicted them as societal rejects, objects of pity, bit-parts in the grand scheme. I found it strange, because that depiction didn’t bear much resemblance to any of the older people I knew in real life. Then, I started deliberately seeking out books with older protagonists who were passionate, who lived full lives and fell in love and engaged with the world. It turns out, there’s no age limit on living an interesting life, fictional or otherwise. Here are eighteen books with older protagonists that reflect the true richness of later life.

18 Books With Older Protagonists - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

The Thursday Murder Club - Richard Osman - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A peaceful retirement village might seem like an odd choice of setting for a hilarious romp revolving around a murder, but that’s what you get with The Thursday Murder Club. In this highly-entertaining whodunnit, “four septuagenarians with a few tricks up their sleeves” set about trying to solve the murder of a local property developer. They’re an unlikely gang, and certainly unassuming in the high-stakes world of murder investigation, but this story proves that first looks can be deceiving and there’s no substitute for the wisdom of experience.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

A Man Called Ove - Fredrik Backman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The titular character in A Man Called Ove is technically on the younger side of “older” (59 years), but he’s definitely curmudgeonly before his time. When the story begins, he’s been having a rough trot, mourning the loss of his wife and forced into early retirement. He plans to end it all, but his plans are rudely interrupted by the arrival of a young family next door. Ove might be the grumpiest old man you’ll read about in fiction, but he’s also undoubtedly one of the most endearing. This sleeper-hit best-seller will have you reaching for the tissues and gushing to your book club. Read my full review of A Man Called Ove here.

Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

Elizabeth Is Missing - Emma Healey - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Failing memory and declining cognitive skills is an unfortunate reality of growing older, but that doesn’t mean we stop living. The persistence of love and loyalty is beautifully depicted in Elizabeth Is Missing, a book about an older protagonist in the middle stages of dementia. She embarks on a desperate quest to find her best friend, a woman she believes to be missing and in terrible danger. Despite everyone in her orbit chalking her concerns up to her dwindling faculties, she’s determined to find Elizabeth and ensure her safety, on her own if need be.

Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice For Murderers by Jesse Q Sutanto

Vera Wong's Unsolicited Advice For Murderers - Jesse Q Sutanto - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In a stereotypical murder mystery, an little old lady who stumbles across a corpse in the middle of her tea shop might faint with surprise, then disappear from the story altogether – but Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice For Murderers is not a stereotypical murder mystery. This delightful story follows a tech-savvy grandmother who puts her nosiness to good use, investigating the murder of the man whose body she discovered. She knows the killer will return to her tea shop to retrieve the flash drive she lifted from his victim, but could one of her beloved customers really be responsible for the crime?

The Concierge by Abby Corson

The Concierge - Abby Corson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Hector Harrow has worked at Cavengreen Hotel for his entire adult life, several decades of welcoming guests and ensuring their comfort. He’s the hotel concierge, which means he sees everything and says nothing… until now. He’s finally ready to spill the beans about what happened the night of the murder. That’s where The Concierge begins, a book about an older man coming to the end of his career in hospitality, one way or the other. Hector is also a character who lives with anxiety, and how this plays out on the page reflects how the traumas of childhood can follow us into old(er) age. Read my full review of The Concierge here.

The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared - Jonas Jonasson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You might think that a book that begins with an older protagonist feeling miserable at the prospect of his hundredth birthday party in a nursing home would be… well, a bummer. The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared is anything but! Allan Karlsson takes matters into his own hands, as the title suggests, and the story follows him on an epic around-the-world adventure, one that incorporates strange and wonderful anecdotes from his long and eventful life. Read my full review of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.

The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway

The Old Man And The Sea - Ernest Hemingway - Keeping Up With The Penguins

One of the most famous classic books with older protagonists is, of course, The Old Man And The Sea, by Nobel Prize-winner Ernest Hemingway. It’s the pinnacle of his body of work, exemplifying his signature “iceberg” writing style. The story is deceptively simple: an old man goes fishing alone, and hooks a massive marlin that drags him far out into the Gulf Stream. But, of course, there’s a lot going on under the surface. This is a story about courage in the face of certain failure, and the wisdom that comes with defeat. Read my full review of The Old Man And The Sea here.

The Banksia House Breakout by James Roxburgh

The Banksia House Breakout - James Roxburgh - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Banksia House Breakout is a fun-filled adventure that showcases the very best of the kindness of strangers and highlights the importance of respect and independence. Ruth is 81 years old, and already sick of her “new life” at the Banksia House assisted living facility. With the help of her new daredevil friends, Jean and Beryl, and resident escape-artist Keith, she makes a run for it. Her sights are set on getting to Brisbane in time to say goodbye to her terminally ill best friend, Gladys. It’s a great-escape-slash-road-trip novel with older protagonists that will win your heart. Read my full review of The Banksia House Breakout here.

The Elegance Of The Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

The Elegance Of The Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Technically, the older protagonist of The Elegance Of The Hedgehog has to share the spotlight with a much younger one, but it still counts! The story is set in a bourgeois French apartment block, and narrated by two of its residents: the building’s concierge who leads a secret life, and a troubled twelve-year-old who lives with her wealthy family on the fifth floor. Renee is an autodidact, a passionate reader with much more going on than you might first assume, and she’s a natural ally for angsty pre-teen Paloma – they just don’t know it yet. The arrival of a new resident is about to bring them closer. Read my full review of The Elegance Of The Hedgehog here.

The Animals In That Country by Laura Jean McKay

The Animals In That Country - Laura Jean Mckay - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Animals In That Country revolves around the outbreak of a highly infections sub-type of influenza that threatens the very fabric of society – an eerily prescient premise. But the protagonist isn’t a young woman in STEM here to save the day, or a brave man with a big gun who’s going to blow the bad guys away; it’s a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed grandma with a pet dingo and a stubborn streak. She’d go to any lengths to protect her beloved granddaughter, Kimberly – even follow her infected son across the country to make sure his daughter is safe. Read my full review of The Animals In That Country here.

The One And Only Dolly Jamieson by Lisa Ireland

The One And Only Dolly Jamieson - Lisa Ireland - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Dolly Jamieson is an unassuming protagonist to begin with: an older woman who is ‘between permanent abodes’, who spends her days keeping warm at the local library. There, she meets a woman at a loose end, and an unlikely friendship begins. The One And Only Dolly Jamieson is a book about going beyond first impressions, and the stories that might hide behind the faces we look past. By encouraging Dolly to open up about the terrific highs and devastating lows of her long life, Jane is finally able to reckon with her own past and make plans for her future. Read my full review of The One And Only Dolly Jamieson here.

The Tap Cats Of The Sunshine Coast by Christine Sykes

The Tap Cats Of The Sunshine Coast - Christine Sykes - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In The Tap Cats Of The Sunshine Coast, three women – lifelong friends, reunited after many years of life pulling them in different directions – are dancing their way into the Senior Superstar Competition on the Sunshine Coast. All of their hopes and dreams have been bound together since primary school, and yet it’s not too late in life for drama. Secrets are being unearthed that will shake the foundation of friendship upon which they’ve built their lives, but will a dance competition be the thing that holds them together when it all falls apart? Read my full review of The Tap Cats Of The Sunshine Coast here.

The Unusual Abduction Of Avery Conifer by Ilsa Evans

The Unusual Abduction Of Avery Conifer - Ilsa Evans - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Unusual Abduction Of Avery Conifer has an unusually dark premise for a book with older protagonists, and yet the story plays out in an uplifting (and occasionally hilarious) way on the page. Two grandmothers, with nothing in common except their love for their granddaughter, band together to kidnap her. They suspect she’s being abused, and they’ll go to any lengths to protect her. Aided and abetted by tech-savvy great-grandmother Winnie and her miniature schnauzer, they take Avery into hiding until they can figure out a longer-term plan to keep her safe. Read my full review of The Unusual Abduction Of Avery Confier here.

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

The Weekend - Charlotte Wood - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Weekend unfolds over the course of one Christmas weekend (duh), but it’s far from a cozy holiday read. Four women—Wendy (the academic), Jude (the perfectionist), Adele (the bohemian), and Sylvie (the peacekeeper)—have been friends for decades, but now Sylvie is dead and her remaining friends must gather at her beachside holiday house to clear it out and ready it for sale. The ravages of grief, and the inescapable proximity, has long-simmering tensions boiling over and secrets suddenly unearthed. This novel has all the drama and pathos of any millennial novel, and will inevitably inspire Sex And The City-style debates about which one of the protagonists you think you are. Read my full review of The Weekend here.

Whenever You’re Ready by Trish Bolton

Whenever You're Ready - Trish Bolton - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Trish Bolton says that she wrote Whenever You’re Ready as ‘a love letter to the lives of older women’. An unexpected death finds Lizzie, Alice, and Margot at various crossroads in their lives, torn between looking back and moving on. Their stories are rollercoasters, with in-fighting and infidelity and shocking revelations of decades-olds secrets. These three intertwined lives are complex, and there is no easy solution to the problems they face, but they’re all painfully aware of their limited time to resolve it all. Read my full review of Whenever You’re Ready here.

An Artist Of The Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

An Artist Of The Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A lot of older characters in fiction are the likeable kind: sure, they have secrets and don’t always make the best choices, but on the whole they’re salt-of-the-earth types… but not all of them. One of the books with older protagonists that bucks the trend is An Artist Of The Floating World. The narrator is an ageing painter who has lived through the seismic cultural shifts in Japan as a result of WWII. In this story, he struggles to accept responsibility for the choices he made during war time, and the enduring legacy of his work. It sounds dense, but it’s an intense and compelling read. Read my full review of An Artist Of The Floating World here.

Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty

Apples Never Fall - Liane Moriarty - Keeping Up With The Penguins

No one writes a compelling domestic thriller like Liane Moriarty. Most of her protagonists mothers in their mid-thirties or early forties, but in Apples Never Fall she sets her sights later in life. The Delaney family are fixtures in their community, and everyone knows their business (or, at least, thinks they do) – especially now that their beloved matriarch is missing. Her husband and children are each harbouring their own secrets, but is one of them hiding what happened to Joy? This totally readable and propulsive mystery will keep you guessing up to the final page. Read my full review of Apples Never Fall here.

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

The Children Act - Ian McEwan - Keeping Up With The Penguins

On its face, The Children Act is a book about a High Court judge ruling on the case of a 17-year-old boy who wishes to refuse life-saving medical treatment on religious grounds. As you read, though, you’ll find that it’s truly a story about the life of the judge in question, Fiona Maye. Off the bench, her life has been thrown into tumult by the revelation of her husband’s desire to stray outside their marriage. These stories play out simultaneously, asking penetrating questions about life-or-death morality and whether what we owe to each other should outweigh what we owe to ourselves. Read my full review of The Children Act here.

6 Comments

  1. The Weekend is an excellent choice – I loved the way Charlotte Wood portrayed the friends and their various challenges with life.
    One of my favourite with an older protagonist is All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West – the central character is in her 80s, recently widowed. Her children have many ideas for how she should now live but she will have none of them and without their knowledge finds a new home and new friends.

    • Sheree

      July 1, 2024 at 11:55 AM

      Oooh, I’ll have to read that one – she sounds like just my kind of gal, thank you for the tip!

  2. “Old God’s Time” by Sebastian Barry has a main character who is a retired Irish policeman.
    Both “Gilead” and “Home” by Marilynne Robinson are told from the point of view of elderly ministers.

  3. Artists of the floating world, I remember that so well, excellent book. It’s also great to see that old b****** like me sometimes do get some positive things written about them.

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