Coming of Age
“Perhaps that sums it up – this story to date, that is. The mistakes, the missed clues, the silly pride, and all the self-pity. And finding love in unexpected places.” (Timed Out)
Timed Out, published in my seventies, is a ‘coming of age’ story in two senses. My character Jane Lambert is sixty when the novel opens and over seventy when it ends. The title refers both to Jane’s use of a computer to seek a partner, and to her fear of running out of time to sort out her life.
In English, the expression ‘coming of age’ has taken over from ‘Bildungsroman’ to describe a novel recounting the spiritual or emotional development of its protagonist. Usually the character is a child or young person at the start and a young adult at the end (e.g. Great Expectations, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), and has learned and changed a lot along the way. Jane learns a great deal about herself and other people in the course of her journey through her retirement years. She discovers painful truths, but new pathways to happiness as well. Perhaps not all of us are able to do this after we reach sixty – or fifty – or forty, even – but I am sure that many can. ’Coming of age’ is not just for the young.
Not only did the fictional Jane Lambert experience a late-life coming of age. So too did her author. Like many another first novel, Timed Out had its origins in memoir or autobiography. No sooner had I unwrapped my presents and eaten and drunk my way through several retirement parties than I found myself wondering ‘Now, what is the point of me?’ I was single, and still healthy. Time to take stock and time to decide how best to use the years that remained. I wondered again about the Big Questions and about what I could do to make myself feel worthwhile again.
Jane and I both did Internet dating, with rather different results – and both got some happiness and some heartache from it.
Jane continued to be a wobbly agnostic, experiencing ‘religious moments’, re-examining the arguments against the existence of God. A number of older people have told me that these issues, ignored while they were focused on family and career, re-emerged when they ‘had time to think’ upon retiring. (This strand in Jane’s story is not something I myself lived through in my sixties, rather it reflects my experience as a much younger woman).
Timed Out recounts Jane’s struggles to find what she seeks and I will not reveal the outcome and what she learns. Suffice it to say that she is a different woman by the end of the novel.
As for me? I gradually reinvented myself as a writer of fiction. In the course of my re-education, I learned a lot more about myself both as a writer and as a person. And in the months since this novel was published, I have learned a lot more: that the best thing – the thing that makes me happiest – is finding that my Jane’s story has resonated with someone or given them pleasure. And I have learned some humility too – now, when I study the authors I most admire, I can better appreciate the effort and the genius needed for their kind of writing. I know now how hard it is. And how worthwhile.