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Fran Littlewood’s Favorite Midlife Heroines

Monday, September 11, 2023

A Book Roundup with “Amazing Grace Adams” Author Fran Littlewood

By Fran Littlewood

Midlife heroines are having a moment, and not before time. You must’ve been living off-grid if you missed America Ferrera’s fierce Barbie monologue last month. As a midlife mother speaking her truth, she gave voice to women everywhere with her “It is literally impossible to be a woman” speech. In Amazing Grace Adams, I wanted to do something similar, to try to plug the gap where I felt honest, raw, unvarnished midlife voices should have been. I fell in love with the idea of taking a 45-year-old protagonist and making her an action hero–with all the dark humor and visceral emotion that would bring. Through this lens, I wanted to write a broader exploration of marriage, family and identity, love and loss, the ambush of age, and female rage.

I’m optimistic that kick-ass midlife women are increasingly becoming part of the cultural conversation in fiction as well as TV and film. The characters at the center of these stories are as interesting, smart, funny, ambitious, and nuanced as women actually are. With this in mind, here are some fabulous books that put these heroines in the spotlight–right where they should be!

Games and Rituals

by Katherine Heiny

Irreverent, properly funny, offbeat (in the best possible way), and true, this brilliant book of short stories delves–warts and all–into the midlife space, and it is irresistible. Mia snorts coke with her ex-husband because “she has always been shit at resisting peer pressure,” and then has make-up sex with him–both of them still wearing their bifocals. Erica regresses to her teen self, after her elderly father accidentally eats his $4,000 hearing aid. Rachel hands her husband (who worries he no longer “sparked joy” in her) a list of the 34 perimenopause symptoms she’s experiencing, before going on to Marie Kondo her house. And that’s just for starters. Heiny’s characters punch through the pages unapologetically, but her pitch-perfect narratives also deliver poignancy and depth, among the laughs.

Where’d You Go Bernadette?

by Maria Semple

Bernadette Fox is a wonder, and this is a book I kept close to the desk while I was writing Grace. A former recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant for architecture and mother to 15-year-old Bee, Bernadette breaks all the social rules. She confounds the neighbors and the toxic school mums, eventually going AWOL (to Antarctica!). She steps outside the rigid boundaries, literally and metaphorically, in almost everything she says and does. And it is so refreshing. Written in an epistolary style, the novel is subversive, wholly original, and full of black humour.

Carrie Soto Is Back

by Taylor Jenkins Reid

When retired tennis champion, Carrie Soto, decides to make a comeback–at the tender age of 37–she is widely scorned, considered way past her prime. Reid uses the extreme setting of the elite sports world, and a backdrop of celebrity, to interrogate the misogyny and double standards all women face. As Carrie herself puts it, “…no matter what type of woman you are, we all still have one thing in common: Once we are deemed too old, it doesn’t matter who we used to be.” The author is superb on the vilification of ambitious, powerful, kick-ass women, who dare to rise up and speak out.

Big Swiss

by Jen Beagin

Gloriously off-the-wall, Big Swiss has at its heart a 45-year-old protagonist, Greta, who makes her living transcribing client recordings for a shoddy sex therapist called Om–although “his real (and perfectly good) name was Bruce.” Another midlifer who has walked out on her present, Greta has moved into a crumbling, nightmarish, dream house with an empty-nester in her mid-50s. And she’s become obsessed with Big Swiss, one of Om’s clients, whom she’s never met but who has an aura “the size of a barge.” The novel has shades of Where’d You Go Bernadette in its brilliantly bonkers absurdity. It is heaving with female characters who refuse to conform and is very much not afraid to go there in its investigation of midlife desire.


by Lisa Taddeo

I adored Three Women, and in this, her first novel, Taddeo continues to excavate the female psyche in the most skilful, beautiful, visceral prose. Taddeo’s protagonist, Joan, is on the run from her life (her married lover has just shot himself, in a restaurant, in front of her), but she is also running towards a past she knows she needs to confront. Joan is nearly 37 (so I’m playing a little fast and loose with the midlife definition here…), but as the character astutely observes, “thirty-six may be nothing, but thirty-seven is the end.” This is brutal, no-holes-barred storytelling: Taddeo’s (anti)heroine is fierce, flawed, and full of female rage. Not for the fainthearted, there’s blood and gore and raw truth–and it left me reeling.

Mrs Dalloway

by Virginia Woolf

When I came back to this book a year or so ago and realized that having “just broken into her fifty-second year” Clarissa Dalloway was only a couple of years older than me, I knew it was time to re-evaluate. Before then, she’d always seemed ancient. And in fact, early in the book, Woolf cuts to the heart of the contradiction and complexity that hovers in the midlife space, when she writes, “She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on.” But it’s Mrs Dalloway’s old friend, Sally Seton, who has shucked off the social straightjacketing of younger years, “For she had come to feel that it was the only thing worth saying–what one felt. Cleverness was silly. One must say simply what one felt.” Spoken like a true midlife heroine.

I Feel Bad About My Neck

by Nora Ephron

No list of midlife heroines in literature is complete without an Ephron mention–and in particular, this collection of her essays, which is part memoir, part manifesto. The title alone! Her writing is so instructive, wise, and darkly funny, on womanhood and parenting, identity, and the ambush of age. I could quote from this book endlessly here, but–in a way that would very much chime with Grace–Ephron is sublime on raising teenagers, “You’ve devoted years to making your children feel that you care about every single emotion they’ve ever felt… You love them wildly, way more than your parents loved you. And yet they seem to have turned out exactly the way adolescents have always turned out. Only worse. How did this happen? What did you do wrong?”


Fran Littlewood has an MA in creative writing from Royal Holloway, University of London. Before her MA, she worked as a journalist, including a stint at the Times. She lives in London with her husband and their three daughters. Amazing Grace Adams is her debut novel.

Posted September 11, 2023