Living Your Second Act: 6 Books on Growth in Middle Age

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At the age of forty-four, the writer Claire Dederer started to cry. She cried in cafes, on walks around her native Seattle, on the phone, in yoga class. She went out into her writing shed where, instead of working on assignments, she cried.

  • The cover of the book Love and Trouble

    Love and Trouble

    A Midlife Reckoning

    “I cried helplessly,” she writes, in her new memoir Love and Trouble. “I cried for everything I couldn’t have in my good life: freedom and carelessness and some kind of undefined, perfect love that hadn’t found me yet and never would.”

    She had a happy marriage and two contented children, but the person she really missed was her former self, that “disastrous pirate slut of a girl.” So, still weeping, she pulled out her old journals, read them, and then began to retrace the path that took her from that adventurous, promiscuous, wondering creature to the woman she became.

  • For many writers, Dederer included, middle age is less a time of settling than of surprising, sometimes violent upheaval, when the past comes hurtling back, causing the writer to ask, how did I go from her to me? While some assert that the designation of the decades between forty and sixty as a distinct developmental stage is a societal construct, others say middle age is not just real, it may be the most interesting time of our lives. For more takes on life during its second act, read these memoirs and novels.

  • The cover of the book Out of Time

    Out of Time

    The Pleasures and the Perils of Ageing

    What does it mean to age gracefully? It sounds like a good thing, but how should we do it, and why? In this part memoir, part social history, academic Segal investigates contemporary attitudes about the second half of life, looking at the treatment (and neglect) of the middle-aged, and paying special attention to the financial strains of growing old. Inspired by Simone de Beauvoir to look unflinchingly at the changing face in the mirror, Segal argues that questions of identity only become sharper as we grow older.

  • The cover of the book In Our Prime

    In Our Prime

    Middle age, as a concept, is barely a toddler, asserts Cohen in this social history of the term. Just as childhood and romantic love are relatively recent inventions, middle-age did not exist for most of recorded history. But that doesn’t mean we don’t experience it, as marketers, doctors, filmmakers, scientists, fashion designers and anyone else looking to make some money on this demographic can well attest. In this book, Cohen asks what middle age really means, and whether any of the products, advice, interventions, and supposed “cures” for the condition are actually treating anything.

  • The cover of the book Sex and the Seasoned Woman

    Sex and the Seasoned Woman

    Pursuing the Passionate Life

    In her best-selling, highly influential book Passages, writer Sheehy described different periods of life – including middle age. In this book, she looks at the sexual habits and appetites of women fifty and over, and discovers that many are experiencing a sexual renaissance they never would have predicted in their younger years. Sheehy calls this a second adulthood, where women, free of childrearing tasks, start acting like kids again.

  • The cover of the book Mrs. Dalloway

    Mrs. Dalloway

    Mrs. Dalloway spends a June morning preparing for a party she is giving for her husband that evening. Such quotidian concerns form the plot (such as it is) of Woolf’s novel mining the interior life of a woman looking back on lost loves and life choices, and hesitantly beginning to prepare for the coming of old age. As Mrs. Dalloway moves around London, buying flowers, seeing old friends, she reveals an entire life, one whose serene exterior masks inner turmoil and an essential search for meaning and truth.

  • The cover of the book I See You Made an Effort

    I See You Made an Effort

    Compliments, Indignities, and Survival Stories from the Edge of 50

    Humor writer Gurwith details her fears of fifty in this memoir of growing old in a youth-obsessed culture. As an actress and performer living in Los Angeles, she is especially alert to the indignities faced by the over-thirty set, and writes with self-deprecating humor about her own reluctance to go gentle into the night of the middle aged soul.