Off the shelf | 80-somethings share their strengths and vulnerabilities

Contemporary fiction is generally not much better than Hollywood in its willingness to feature elderly protagonists — it is uncommon to find a bestseller in which the main character is collecting Social Security. Here are three novels that break the mold, placing Jewish octogenarians at their center. Interestingly, all three  mark their authors’ debuts and were published in the spring.

Derek Miller’s compelling thriller “Norwegian by Night” revolves around 82-year-old Sheldon Horowitz, a retired watch repairman and Korean War veteran. Recently widowed, he has relocated from New York to Norway to be closer to his pregnant granddaughter, Rhea, and her Norwegian husband, Lars.

Witnessing his neighbor being pursued by a menacing man, Sheldon decides to intervene by offering the woman and her 7-year old son refuge in his apartment. The stalker breaks into the apartment, the neighbor is murdered, and Sheldon flees the scene with the boy.

The surprisingly resourceful Sheldon’s goal is to take the boy to Rhea and Lars’ remote summer cottage. Their journey through Norway, which takes some surprisingly humorous turns, is interspersed with the simultaneous efforts of both the ethnic Albanian Kosovars involved in the crime and the police’s chief inspector to piece together what happened and find Sheldon’s tracks. 

The book’s depth emerges through the reader’s access to Sheldon’s thoughts, in which whatever is occurring in the present is informed by past traumas. Transplanted by happenstance onto European soil, Sheldon is ever conscious of the Holocaust, and his effort to defend his neighbors is sparked by his desire to distinguish himself from those who looked the other way when their Jewish neighbors were rounded up. Similarly, his reluctance to turn over the child to the police stems from his awareness of the Norwegian police’s active role in those roundups.

But the most potent key to Sheldon’s inner life is his heartache over his deceased son, Saul. It was during a voluntary second tour of duty in Vietnam — encouraged by Sheldon — that Saul was killed.

Sheldon’s rescue of the boy in Norway becomes an act of atonement to help address the guilt he feels about Saul’s death.

Complicating this, however, is Rhea’s belief that Sheldon is suffering from the onset of dementia. It is a belief that the reader comes to share as Sheldon’s memories and his grasp of the present reality become less reliable.

“Norwegian by Night” likely presents the most action-packed account of an elderly man’s existence I have ever read.

Miriam Karmel’s debut novel “Being Esther” does quite the opposite. It is remarkable, rather, in presenting a life that is, in fact, ordinary. The book is concerned not with grand schemes, but with the diurnal challenges of aging.

Esther Lustig is an 85-year-old widow who has left her suburban home for a smaller Chicago apartment. Her daughter wants to place her in an assisted living facility, while Esther struggles to maintain her independence.

Aware that she is approaching the end of her days, Esther reflects frequently on her past, sometimes expressing regret about choices that kept her life conventional and unexciting. She tries to draw meaning from her present life, but it is a task made harder by the reality that her body is not cooperating, most of her friends have died, and her relationships with her adult children are unsatisfying.

Told from Esther’s perspective, “Being Esther” is more a character study than a plot-driven novel. But it is an affecting presentation of an ordinary person doing her best to cope with challenges that we tend to avoid thinking about, but which most of us will face.

In Jessica Soffer’s “Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots,” Manhattan eighth-grader Lorca has adopted distressing self-mutilating behaviors as a response to her lack of connection to her emotionally uninvolved mother and her absent father. When Lorca is suspended from school after being caught cutting herself, her mother wants to send her off to boarding school. 

Panicked by this prospect, Lorca develops the idea that she can make things better by surprising her mother, a successful chef, by making masgouf, an Iraqi fish dish that her mother sampled at a restaurant years ago and has yearned for since.

In search of someone to teach her the art of masgouf, Lorca finds Victoria Sofer, a Baghdad-born octogenarian who once ran the now-shuttered restaurant that had served Lorca’s mother the dish. Recently widowed and having given up her only daughter for adoption many years ago, Victoria feels the weight of loss deeply. She has recently decided to teach cooking as a means of breaking out of her depression.

Victoria’s sense of loss is also deepened by her yearning for the place and culture in which she came of age. When she was born, a third of Baghdad’s population, including Victoria, was Jewish. “Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots” conveys some of this lost world, and the longing for it.

The novel is narrated alternately from the perspectives of Lorca and Victoria. The two bond through cooking and eating, and their sensual relationship to food is portrayed ably. But what really unites them is their need for love and support, and they provide each other a sustaining connection during a time of emotional vulnerability.

“Norwegian by Night” by Derek Miller
(304 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26)

“Being Esther” by Miriam Karmel
(208 pages, Milkweed Editions, $22)

“Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots”
by Jessica Soffer (336 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24)


Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.