A literary critique examines portrayals of older women in fiction.
Throughout her life, Saxton has known many strong older women, like her mother, aunts, and grandmothers, who—despite the physical challenges of aging—possessed a lifetime of spirit and energy. As a professor of English at Mills College in Oakland, California, the author attempted to introduce her students to fiction that celebrated the vibrancy of real-life women, but she was often disappointed. Instead of stories about positive aging, in which women over 60 years old became their “truest selves,” Saxton noted that much fiction about older women was structured like “Deathbed Bookends”—in other words, the tales opened and closed with the memory of a youthful (often romantic) past, and the protagonist’s glory days were sadly over. In this well-organized presentation, the author lays out a thoughtful analysis of works of fiction from the 20th and 21st centuries, like Tillie Olsen’s powerful short story “Tell Me a Riddle” and Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg’s comedy-of-errors novel, The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules. Thirty stories are examined in five categories—"Romancing the Past,” “Sex After Sixty,” “Altered Realities,” “It’s Never Too Late,” and “Defying Expectations”—and each segment contains illuminating critiques of six tales grouped into pairs. Saxton’s conclusions are memorable; for example, in Chapter 1, she writes that Katherine Anne Porter’s short story “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” and Susan Minot’s novel Evening both use Deathbed Bookends for their structures. The comprehensive work concludes with a compelling analysis of Margaret Drabble’s complex 2016 novel, The Dark Flood Rises. Though the chapters feel like individual essays that could be used in the classroom, Saxton’s beautifully fluid prose would be a pleasure to read while relaxing at the beach.
A thought-provoking, informative, and valuable literary analysis.