I’ll turn 50 at the end of this year, and maybe that’s why I’ve been drawn to novels with older protagonists. Or maybe it’s pure chance that I read one featuring a 68-year-old woman and (most of) one featuring an 85-year-old back to back. I can’t say that the WASPy, gun-toting PI of Peter Heller’s Celine is exactly someone I aspire to be, both she and the former ad-woman in Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk refuse to fade quietly into the background as they age–they’re right there in the titles!–and that’s something to emulate. Come to think of it, maybe just at this moment I needed to read about older women refusing to fit in the boxes society built for them and if not triumphing, surviving and insisting on being themselves.
Peter Heller’s Celine is being described as a mystery novel, and I had to stop myself from writing things like “but it’s really about loss” or “but it transcends the genre.” A lot of genre mystery is also “really” about loss or other themes.
Still, the style of this novel is different from a lot of genre mystery–slower paced, more reflective. Heller is not only a novelist but an adventure and outdoor writer, and that shows in his loving descriptions of Celine and her husband Pete’s travels (in a pop-up-camper) in and around Yellowstone.
Celine is a PI who specializes in reuniting birth families, driven by losses in her own past. (Heller could be accused of over-egging the loss pudding: not only has Celine recently lost both her sisters, the novel is set just after the one-year anniversary of 9/11, and Celine’s apartment has a view of the twin towers site). She’s asked by Gabriela, a young woman who lost her mother as a child, to find her father, who disappeared just outside Yellowstone when Gabriela was 20–taken, the theory was, by a grizzly, but Gabriela has never quite believed it. The mystery isn’t plausible, exactly, but its solution is logical (and satisfying), and I was willing to buy in because Celine is such an appealing character.
Celine the character isn’t really plausible either: where exactly did this upper-crust woman, always impeccably dressed, learn to handle guns the way she did? or have a crime-solving success rate so high that the FBI wants to recruit her? Here is where Heller’s literary style perhaps works against him: in the go-ahead prose of a thriller, we accept such larger-than-life characters (though they’re usually male), but in Heller’s more literary and realist setting, I found myself sometimes thinking “Oh, come on.” But again, I was willing to buy in–precisely because such attributes are usually attached to a cardboard military-type male, and to see them attached to a patrician, female Brooklyn artist was refreshing.
I think this NPR review gives a good sense of Celine‘s pleasures and style, while Kirkus nails some problems with point of view–the characters don’t have entirely distinct or convincing voices. I learned about Celine from the delightful “middle-aged women” of the Book Cougars podcast.
I didn’t manage to finish Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk before it returned itself to the library, so I have to spend a few weeks on hold before I can follow Lillian on the rest of her wander through New York on New Year’s Eve, 1984–and her wander, too, through her life story. Rohan’s review sold me on reading it.
I am here for all your old lady literary recommendations.