Image: Stuart Simpson

"Life really does begin at 40," once wrote the psychiatrist Carl Jung. "Up until then, you are just doing research." Which is to say: most people should have a fair idea of who they are by 40. But just because you've got some life experience under your belt, it doesn't mean there isn't still a lot to learn.

Growing children, elderly parents, finding the true meaning of happiness and making love last are just some of the issues that begin work their way into life after 40. It may even be the first time many of us begin to think seriously about our own mortality. 

But, as for all of life's big questions, answers can always be found in great literature. 

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011)

“How often do we tell our own life story?” writes Barnes in this thought-provoking meditation on memory, mortality and regret. “How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but – mainly – to ourselves.”

Tony Webster, Barnes' narrator, is retired with a good career behind him and an amicable divorce. He has a daughter, too, and he looks back at his youth in a bid to find some meaning in it. He reflects upon his student days, his first love and the momentous moments of his life with the unreliable certainty that what happened really happened merely because he remembers it.

Only, memory is a rusty clock, and can often get more things wrong than it can get right, as he learns when the diary of a university friend who committed suicide 40 years earlier is left to him in another friend's will. While Webster is in his 60s, this Booker-winning novella provides a poignant and moving lesson on the elusive nature of memory and time.

Late In the Day by Tessa Hadley (2019)

In this life-affirming tale about aging and adultery, the lives of two close-knit middle-class couples – with a tangled erotic past – are pitched skyward when one of them dies.

“In less capable hands, [Hadley's] stories ... about the quotidian aches of marriage, parenthood, ageing and friendship would be grating,” wrote the critic Johanna Thomas-Corr. “But her prose ... picks up on all the contradictions of human existence.”

When art-dealer Zachary dies of a sudden heart attack, his widow, Lydia, moves in with Christine and Alex. But – as they contemplate their personal memories of Zachary and the influence he had on each of their lives – they are faced with the jarring realisation that their lifelong friendship might not endure his loss. Without him, an armada of uncomfortable truths materialises through the fog of their past.

Sifting gently through the issues that infiltrate sex and passion after 40, Hadley's whispering prose is a delight as it needles the ennui that can creep into middle-aged existence while reminding us of the confounding duality of social class – it can be both a prison and an escape.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron (1983)

Most people know Nora Ephron for her superhuman gift for a pithy one-liner (“I'll have what she's having”, given to When Harry Met Sally, might be her most famous). She could – to borrow Clive James' famous quip – turn a phrase until it caught the light. But read her first and only novel, and you'll see she was capable of so much more.

The story behind Heartburn is heart-wrenching. Really a thinly veiled mirror to Ephron's own experience, it follows Rachel, a successful cookery writer who discovers seven months into her second pregnancy that her husband is having an affair (same thing happened to Ephron with the journalist Carl Bernstein).

Awash with all the wit, wisdom and side-splitting style that made Ephron one of the most sought-after creative minds of the past 30 years, it is a masterclass in turning heartache into hilarity as Rachel deals with the (shockingly awful) betrayal and its aftermath with sensational dignity. "One of the things I'm proudest of is that I managed to convert an event that seemed to me hideously tragic at the time to a comedy,” Ephron wrote defending the autobiographical nature of the novel, “and if that's not fiction, I don't know what is.”

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood (1965)

Few books have managed to encapsulate the utter grinding pain of losing the person closest to you as Christoper Isherwood's masterwork about a university lecturer struggling to come to terms with the death of his partner.

The story follows George across a single day of his life – more a void than a life since Jim was killed in a car crash not long ago. George is a middle-aged Englishman living in California in the 1960s. 

But he isn't annihilated by grief. Rather, he is doing his best to make it through each day by trying to make some connection with the world and the people left in it. He teaches a class, has a row with some neighbours, hits the gym, has a boozy dinner with a female friend before she makes a pass at him, and so on.

There are no spare parts to this story – it is, as the critic Robert McCrum put it, a gorgeously written “study of grief and the aftermath of a gay marriage… unique, brilliant, and deeply moving, with not a word wasted.”

The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899)

Kate Chopin's feminist classic about self-discovery may be 120 years old, but it nevertheless pulsates with relevance, as much today as in 1899.

Set in the then-popular holiday resort of Grand Isle in Louisiana, The Awakening centres on Edna Pontellier, a wife and mother, who refuses to be imprisoned by the patriarchal prison of an unhappy marriage (at one point her husband regards his sunburned wife "as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage"). She is a lot younger than 40, but 1899 was a different time. They may have married earlier then, but a hole in a marriage will leak happiness however old you are.

So Edna resolves to take control of her identity in the only way she can (divorce was not an option then, either) – she sets out on a journey of emotional and sexual awakening, albeit with tragic consequences. This, in short, is a story about unhappy marriage and the courage it can take to break free.

The Price of Saltlater published as Carol, by Patricia Highsmith (1952)

This was Patricia Highsmith's only novel explicitly about a lesbian affair, and the first such mainstream book with a happy ending. It is, in short, a love story between a 19-year-old girl and an older woman.

Therese is stuck in a dead-end job in a New York department store with a boyfriend she doesn't love. But then, one day at work, she sees Carol, a 30-something married woman in the throes of a bitter divorce and custody battle. “Their eyes met at the same instant,” writes Highsmith. “Her eyes were gray, colorless, yet dominant as light or fire, and caught by them, Therese could not look away. Her mouth was as wise as her eyes, Therese thought, and her voice was like her coat, rich and supple and somehow full of secrets.”

Love blooms and soon they are on a forbidden road trip together. In each other's arms, their loneliness drains away. It is a story of forbidden passion that reveals the way true love – not to mention desire – can strike at any stage in life, sometimes in the most unexpected of ways.

Grown Ups by Marian Keyes (2020)

Grown Ups tells the story of the Caseys, a happy family at street-level, but beneath them flows a sewer of unresolved tension and turmoil.

They may appear to be an enviably successful extended family with Ireland at their feet. But a more complicated picture emerges through a cavalcade of grating family events – anniversaries, birthdays, holidays abroad – and the interpersonal dynamics between three brothers, their wives and children, twirl and tangle to expose the frayed threads that have held the family together for so long.

It is a beautifully poised character-driven epic, wrought with the sort of inter-familial tension and rivalry to which anyone with an extended family (especially those with kids) should relate.

Ultimately, Grown Ups asks the question: at what point in life does the time come to reconcile old grievances with the people you most love and finally grow up? Indeed – and here’s the title's wry wink – is being grown up a guarantee that you have it all figured out?

All Adults Here by Emma Straub (2020)

The Stricks are a family of four: widowed matriarch Astrid and her three grown-up children, Elliot, Porter and Nicky. Elliot is a businessman who cannot understand who he is, let alone his teenagers. Perennially single Porter has given up on her hunt for a man to have a sperm-donor baby by herself.

Then there's Nicky, a one-time teen movie star who's fled to Mexico to live the boho dream, but not before dumping his irrepressibly curious teenage daughter Cecelia on his mother. “That was the problem with being part of a family: Everyone could mean well and it could still be a disaster,” Astrid muses.

Then, the sudden death of one of Astrid's friends unearths a buried memory from her children's younger days that makes her wonder: how good a parent has she really been?

This delightful new novel is about how intentions and actions don't always coalesce. All parents make mistakes, but which ones that really matter? And, more importantly, who gets to decide what counts in the long run?

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst (2018)

This gripping saga follows the lives of a group of (mostly gay) Oxford university friends, after they meet a dreamboat new student by the name of David Sparsholt. In him, we meet our protaginist, first when narrator Freddie spies him through his dorm-room window: "a rhythmical shadow ... massive and abstracted, as if shaped from light itself.”

Split in to five sections, it leaps through the men's lives from passionate youth to “the dense tangled stasis of adult life.” David is the meat of the first few chapters, before handing the reigns of the story to his also-gay son Johnny, who comes of age in London just as homosexuality has been decriminalized. There is of course – as the title implies – a sensational scandal in the middle, too, as it bounces from the post-war years through the swinging sixties, seventies, and onto London's gay scene in 2012.

The story is too complex to break into bitesize chunks. But, as a whole, it is a gorgeous novel about art, sex, truth and lies with a keen eye on how the secrets of our past like to rise from the dead. It's also about family, marriage and children. Above all that, though, it's a powerful portrait of gay life – and its history – over the past 80 years.

Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence (1913)

For the poet Philip Larkin, D. H. Lawrence was “England's greatest novelist”, and Sons and Lovers was his greatest work. "Nearly every page of it is absolutely perfect," he reportedly said of the story about the dysfunctional relationship between a mother and her grown up son.

It centres on William and Paul Morel, two brothers whose overbearing mother, Gertrude – disappointed in how her life has panned out, including a terrible marriage – has devoted her entire life to them. It's fine when they're young; a different matter when they grow up and cannot form meaningful relationships with women as a result.

Or, as Lawrence outlined the plot to a friend: “These sons are urged into life by their reciprocal love of their mother – urged on and on. But when they come to manhood, they can't love, because their mother is the strongest power in their lives, and holds them.”

Aside from being one of the finest novels ever written in English, Sons and Lovers a harsh but valuable lesson to any parent on the perils of smothering your children with love.

So Much Life Left Over by Louis de Bernieres (2018)

The First World War is over, and former flying ace Daniel seeks to make a fresh start and reheat his cooling marriage by moving to a tea plantation in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) with his wife Rosie and their young daughter. He's bruised by the horrors of war, while Rosie yearns for a different kind of fulfilment – one she's convinced she can only find back home. Soon their marriage begins to wither.

Meanwhile, at home in England, Rosie's sisters are facing their own existential struggles as they search for purpose and happiness in a changing world. The novel carries the reader across two decades and two continents, bolstered by a mosaic of vibrant characters, finally landing in Germany, where the world is hurtling towards another great war. There, Daniel gets caught up in something awful.

This artfully rendered portrait of a family coming to terms with their present in the shadow of their past is evocative, tender and, at times, heartbreaking. Family, purpose and the pursuit of happiness is the flavour, brought vividly to life through Louis De Bernieres' authorial wizardry.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915)

This near-perfect meditation on the cracks that emerge in relationships as time goes by tracks the dissolution of the marriage of a soldier returned from the First World War. Edward Ashburnham seems to be the perfect English military man, and Leonora his perfect wife. 

So when they meet a wealthy American couple at a German spa, a four-way friendship forms, lasting for nine seemingly happy years. Only, unbeknownst to the American husband – our narrator John Dowell – Edward's been having a semi-secret affair with his wife, Florence.

What follows is a sort of detective story in which John uncovers what's been going on behind his back as lives are broken and agony seeps in.

It is a book that Ford Madox Ford famously began writing on his 40th birthday to "show what I could do." He proved his point in this masterful study on the frailty of memory, the destructive forces of adultery and, crucially, how the best way to truly understand yourself, is to first understand the people around you.

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro (2009)

Is there such a thing as having too much happiness? Alice Munro's collection of ten stories is punch-in-the-heart life-affirming. So affecting, in fact, that it won a Nobel Prize in 2013. 

Munro's writing is so warm, so insightful, that it has the power to warm even the coolest of souls. Those familiar with Munro will know her bent: she writes about women and their worries – love and lust, marriage and security, jealousy and friendship as well as ageing, ambition, housework, boredom and, of course, children.

When asked what impact she hoped her writing had on her readers, she told the Nobel Prize website: “I want my stories to be something about life that causes people to say, not, oh, isn’t that the truth, but to feel some kind of reward from the writing, and that doesn’t mean that it has to be a happy ending or anything, but just that everything the story tells moves the reader in such a way that you feel you are a different person when you finish.”  

Too Much Happiness does exactly that.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith (2005)

Inspired by Howard’s End, Zadie Smith’s third novel is an intimate portrait of two families bound together by professional jealousy, adolescent fascination, female kinship, infidelity and race relations.

Howard Belsey is a white English academic living in Boston, MA, with his wife and three growing children. But he has a nemesis: Monty Kipps, a formidable Trinidadian intellectual who loves nothing more than to wind up liberals with his ultra-conservative views.

As circumstance draws each family's lives closer, they end up working together. Their wives become friends. Affairs are had, and rivalries fester. As fun and luxuriant a read as the Victorian wallpaper on the front cover, On Beauty examines what value aesthetics in a warts-and-all life. 

The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (2012)

Middle-aged Harold Fry is happily married to wife Maureen. But then he receives a letter from an old colleague called Queenie whom he hasn't seen in years. She is dying and wants to say goodbye. In that moment, he is stirred to act. He doesn't know why, just that he must walk 600 miles from his home in Devon to her hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Armed only with a letter for Queenie and an ineffable sense of spiritual purpose, he sets out, crossing paths with a procession of weird and wonderful people, from "a famous actor" in a public loo to a old man in a teashop with a tormenting sexual secret.

"It must be the same all over England,” Harold ponders at one point. “People were buying milk, or filling their cars with petrol, or even posting letters. And what no one else knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside. The inhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal."

This stirring novel achieves a rare duality: it is at once a profoundly moving story of loss and loneliness, as well as a hands-in-the-air celebration of life.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016)

This gem of a novel, in short, is about who we are and where we come from. Perhaps it has something to do with having children, but there comes a time in life where one begins to wonder where it all began.

This meticulous panorama of the inherited trauma of slavery starts in 18th-century Ghana with two half sisters, Effia and Esi. Effia's father sells her – as a bride, not as an enslaved person – to a British slavetrader named James. Esi, on the other hand, is captured by raiders from another village, sold to the British, and brought to America as an enslaved person.

From there, each chapter is told through the eyes of one of their descendants, tracing their bloodline to the present day.

Gyasi unflinchingly captures the undeniable pain of this generational trauma, their losses as well as their loves. But Homegoing is in this list because it is also about roots. We all have a family tree, realised or not; and here, love is the thread that holds these fascinating life stories together.

Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler (1995)

Delia Grinstead is 40 years old and has had enough – enough of her husband, enough of her kids, and enough of her herself. So, one summer's day on a Baltimore beach – wearing nothing but a swimsuit and a towel – she takes off. She doesn't know where, just that she must go.

She hitches a lift with a stranger and, before she knows it, she is in another town where she can be whoever she wants to be. Only, it is just a matter of time before her past taps her on the shoulder.

Anne Tyler's genius asserts itself in her subtle ability to create flawed characters you can't help but root for. Delia is no exception. It is a story primarily about marriage – Delia's marriage, but also a bunch of others, good and bad, that she encounters along the way. It is also about growing older, losing one's way, finding it again and, crucially, about choice.

Who pulled the levers that dictated her life? Was it her? Or was she a bit part in her own life all along? As one character says to her: “I've always pictured life as one of those ladders you find on playground sliding boards – a sort of ladder of years where you climb higher and higher, and then, oops! you fall over the edge and others move up behind you."

The One Plus One by Jojo Moyes (2014)

Jess Thomas is a single mum with two kids and two jobs. Her daughter Tanzie is a maths whiz and her son, Nicky, wears eyeliner and is a bully magnate. Plus, Jess is always strapped for cash.

One of her jobs is cleaning the home of a geeky tech millionaire, Ed. Ed seems to have it all figured out (little does Jess know he has issues that soon will come out). When Tanzie is offered a place in a prestigious maths competition in Scotland, Jess decides to drive them up. But there's a hitch: she doesn't have a driving license. Enter Ed, with a brand new Audi and a can-do attitude.

Here begins a road trip rom-com for the ages, as the the motley bunch voyage north, staying in dodgy hotels, and eating sloppy kebabs, with a carsick dog. It's at once funny and sad and delightfully uplifting, just as you'd expect if you've read Jojo Moyes before.

And, inside that Audi emerges not one, but a melange of touching love stories – between a single mother and her children; between a woman and her dog; and between two lost souls on the cusp of middle age.

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1926)

In a nutshell, this is a story about a woman who becomes a witch. 

Lolly Willowes is a single woman with no children – a veritable “old maid” in 1920s parlance. With no interest in marriage, she appears destined to remain as “Aunt Lolly”. So, following the death of her father, it feels proper that she be “absorbed into the household” of her brother Henry and his wife Caroline “like a piece of family property forgotten in the will”.

But Lolly is made of far stronger stuff than that. So, to the dismay of her family, she ups sticks and moves to a cottage in the country. There, she not only finds freedom, but also a witches' coven that welcomes her in. She also – quite happily – strikes up a friendship with a middle-aged country charmer who turns out to be Satan and gifts her a cat called Vinegar. "[Women] know they are dynamite, and long for the concussion that may justify them,” she tells him.

Make no mistake: this is full-blooded satire at its finest. Beneath the whimsy lies a powerful tale of transformation and realisation of self, written in the interwar years as the women's liberation movement was picking up speed.

Stoner by John Williams (1965)

Having all but vanished from bookshop shelves for over 40 years, Stoner became an unexpected bestseller in 2013 amid a tsunami of hype. The New Yorker called it “the greatest American novel you've never heard of.”

It is about a quiet and respectable academic, William Stoner, who's in a bad marriage, with an estranged kid, and who trudges through life like a boring book – the kind you want to put down but feel you may as well wait and see what happens at the end.

His life is a slog that does him few favours. And yet, on a deeper level it is a story wrought with feeling and humanity, particularly on the subject of love: “In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.”

In short, Stoner is a moving tribute to a life lived without fireworks or marching bands, just the quiet certainty that it is what it is. In other words, Stoner is completely ordinary, like most of us, and yet his life is as rich as anyone's.

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