The modern American heroine is aging gracefully -- at last.
By Laura Castoro
Author of LOVE ON THE LINE, Avon A
Writers often think we are the first one to come up with a twist on the old story. We are often wrong. Maybe there’s something in the air, or the water, or perhaps writers are just as we should be, sensitive to the vibes of the culture around us, thus able to perceive or absorb by osmosis the next great thing.
I’m a commercial or popular fiction writer. I keep an eye on the bestsellers lists to keep up with popular tastes and interests in fiction. A few years ago I was in a dry spell and tried to get a handle on the then supernova popular Chick Lit novel. Nothing clicked. I enjoyed books such as “Jemima J”, “The Shopaholic” series, “Fashionistas” and some of the dozens of “Sex in the City” type stories. But I couldn’t really identify with the characters. In fact, the mother in me often wished she could offer a few words of advice for those plucky if often self-absorbed twenty-something heroines.
Several months later, with still no book idea on the horizon, I was driving to Houston, nine hours from my house, when this character began talking to me. As the best characters often do, she came fully-loaded with a voice, a story, and an attitude toward life I found irresistible. Her story was about her turning-fifty midlife crisis: a trifecta of divorce, shaky job prospects, and unexpected pregnancy. Better yet she was funny! I’m not particularly funny but Lu, short for Tallulah, was hysterically funny and witty.
The next day I sat at my daughter’s computer to make a few notes. Hours later I had nearly thirty pages of outline. Lu had a lot to say. Surprisingly, she was talking in first person, something I’d never written before. And, in present tense. I thought it had to be an exercise in literary style, not a real book. Just for funnsies, I emailed it to my agent with the note, “This is my response to Chick Lit.” I expected her to laugh and say, now send me a real story. Surprise, surprise, she loved it so much she called me the day she read it raving. It was great, different, fresh, unlike anything she had seen! We sold it over a weekend with a choice between 3 publishers! That book was published as A NEW LU.
You may be wondering, what’s the big deal. Lets back up a bit.
When I published a historical romance in 1980 the standard for desirability in a heroine was roughly the same as it has been for millennia: the traditional childbearing years of 16-20. Pity the heroine who made it to twenty unwed. By twenty-five, her courtship license had expired and she was, as Jane Austin might have put it, “decidedly upon the shelf.”
The sexual revolution arrived in category romance books about 1983 and slowly the age of eligibility for modern heroines rose to thirty. After all, if a girl didn’t have to get pregnant at first swoon, she was likely to weigh her options. Still, it took until the late 90s for fiction to get over the fact that a heroine might have sex, lots of it, in more than one relationship, and not be considered the S word – Slut. Yet, 30 SOMETHING was about the limit of her desira-durability. Be she Bridget Jones or that quartet from “Sex and the City”, no graying or age-spotted babes prowled the aisles of Saks or Starbucks for Mr. Right. And that was that.
Until recently, nearly every female over forty in a storyline was a second banana: the patient mother, evil boss, kindly mentor, or dotty aunt. Midlife books were often three-hankie affairs with broken marriages, ungrateful grown children, death, cancer, and/or a sense of a wasted life. Past her looks, her charm, her youth, fifty might as well have been a death sentence in modern romance. But then, along with A New Lu, other fabulous reads like I Don’t Know How She Does It, The Botox Dairies, and most notably Julie and Romeo, with its sixty-plus heroine, were having the time of their lives in funny, fresh, and appealing storylines of modern life.
Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote about this phenomenon in an article for “More” Magazine called “Bonbons Books for Grownups” (Oct 2005) in which A New Lu was cited as an exemplary example. She describes the new mature heroine like this: “She’s been around the block a few times and knows where to park.”
So, does the older woman differ importantly from her younger sisters and daughters? YES! Here are a few things I found I had to consider when working with the post Modern woman and her world.
- “To Botox or Not.” Looking good has so many options these days that you can find a standard for beauty for everything for silver threads to middle-age paunch – just think of Pierce Brosnan in “The Matador.” Okay, so maybe my fictional Adonis shouldn’t be strutting public corridors in his jock strap but in the right setting...!
And as every grown up woman knows, looks aren’t everything. I’ve always loved this description of Scarlett O’Hara, “She was not a beautiful woman but most men never seemed to notice.” Now that is the force of personality. The mature woman knows her strengths and how to play to them.
- A Closet full of Clothes and Nothing to Bare. Maybe it’s just me, but did you find yourself studying Meryl Streep’s look in “The Devil Wears Prada” movie more than you did the heroine’s? Sure she needed an attitude adjustment. But Meryl’s born to go silver, and wore the most fabulous, age appropriate clothing! At twenty-five, a character might reasonably spend at least a day shopping for the right outfit to impress. By forty, she dons what fits from the back of her wardrobe because she didn’t have time to shop. After sixty, she probably wears what has worked for years with a new scarf or pair of shoes to dress it up. I have an aunt who has a fantastic wardrobe. “This old thing?” she’ll say when I ooh and ahh. “I purchased it at an after Christmas sale at Bergdorf’s twenty years ago It’s worn well, hasn’t it?” So has she!
The mature heroine has options and different priorities when it comes to clothes and looking good.
- I Don’t Know How She Does It. Multitasking is the key to the Boomer life. A character this far into her life won’t have a problem. She’ll more likely have six.
This is the plot of ICING ON THE CAKE
Liz Talbot’s life gives new meaning to the ’Tween Years. Liz is:
- Owner of No-Bagel Emporium, an artisan bakery that has just survived the No-Carb diet fad.
- Mother to twin adult daughters, each searching for happiness in very different ways.
- Daughter of a retired New York City Rockette who has always outshone her in looks, personality, and men.
- Ex-wife of a man who left her for a younger, sexy woman and then forgot to change his will before he died.
Is Liz having fun or what? And that’s just the beginning. She is about to:
- Become business partners with the younger nubile other woman who stole Liz’s husband.
- Make a name for herself as an artisan baker extraordinaire, providing her products can catch the eye of the Nabisco Food Scout who is as elusive as he is mysterious.
- Find herself the woman in a very hot no-names affair with what could be the Next Great Man.
- It’s Hard to Keep Grown Woman Down.
She’s been there, done that, and is so over it. She’s changed diapers on the subway. Managed dinner for twenty with two pounds of pot roast. Or perhaps, she’s finished writing that novel while her husband was in traction after back surgery, and the kids were recovering from measles. So what if she splits a seam in her best dress in the middle of an important social evening ? She’ll pull out the superglue she carries, glue the seam, re-zip her dress, and she’s off. She’s got bigger issues.
So the hero wants to impress this heroine? Buy her an ice cream. Tell her a joke. She’s not after the guy’s money, or his job. She has her own, thank you very much, or is making what she has work for her. The man who enters her life will have to be prepared to share. And he, too, will have decades of adulthood as baggage.
- I’m On the Meter Here.
The mature woman isn’t going to waste time shoulda, woulda, coulda when she’s beginning to confront mortality. She won’t be bound by conventionality or particularly care what the neighbors think. She’s lived long enough to have collected her share of disappointments, also-rans, and grief. She will be pragmatic and wise. If she chooses to make a fool of herself, she’ll be the first to know.
- Julie and Romeo do.
Sex isn’t just for the lithe and tan and toned. Getting away from descriptions of pecs and luscious curves has increased my seduction vocabulary. I have to deal with the reality of aging. Don’t we all? How to keep it real and entertaining? Tell the truth. The first really human moment for the male character in the movie “Something’s Gotta Give” comes when he realizes he can still have sex after his heart attack. Jack Nicolson actually sheds tears!
Sex is big part of the definition of who we are in this modern world. When that ability is in jeopardy, there’s a lot of emotional content to be mined. Viagra was invented for a reason.
- She’s not all that High Maintenance.
She’s not afraid to have the right answer, the correct change, or the time of day. But she also has deep resources of kindness, smarts, and sympathy for human frailties, which makes her wholly human.
- When you are working with a modern Shero He’s the Icing on the Cake.
In today’s fiction my main character is certain to be female and forty plus, sometimes decades plus, yet she will still be a vital, smart, sensually attractive, HARD-WORKING fully-alive human being. Fiction has caught up with a Baby Boomer truth: Life doesn’t end at forty or fifty. It doesn’t even slow down.