Surviving Old Age

Old age is no place for sissies, the familiar adage goes. But Esther Glass Lustig, the 85-year-old widowed protagonist of the deeply moving debut novel Being Esther (Milkweed Editions, $22), by Miriam Karmel, is anything but timid.

Determined to remain in her own apartment in a familiar, if deteriorating Chicago neighborhood, Esther wages a fierce war against her well-intentioned but overbearing daughter, hell-bent on moving her into an assisted living community — “Bingoland,” as Esther disdainfully describes it. Convinced that “people die when they give up their car keys,” she fights both her daughter and her doctor to hold on to her driving rights. And in a patronizing world that mistakes old age for dotage, she battles mightily for
her dignity.

Esther refuses to give in or up. Twice a year she tries on her favorite blue dress, the one she bought during her “svelte” phase and plans to be buried in, to make sure it still fits. She even has it hemmed to accommodate her shrinking body, though she knows no one will see it. Esther has her standards.

The only enemy Esther cannot outsmart is time. Her doctor refers to the extreme arthritis that has turned her hand into an inoperative claw — one of a series of accelerating physical deteriorations — as a “swan’s neck,” but, she quips to one of her few friends still living, the condition sounds a lot prettier than it looks.

 When Esther isn’t visiting an old friend imprisoned in Alzheimer’s and Bingoland, intentionally ramming her shopping cart into a noisy, cell-phone-talking narcissist in the local supermarket, or taking her daughter on a jaunt to Mexico (then leaving her holding the bottle of Johnny Walker Black on their way through customs), she is circling the terrain of her past, going deeper every time.

 She remembers her mother, whose expression of love was that familiar immigrant cry, “Go hit your head against the wall.” She recalls her discovery of books, those magic vessels that transported her from a confined, close-knit Midwestern Jewish world to exotic universes where women drank in the afternoon and talked tough to their husbands. She summons her own spouse of more than half a century, sometimes aching for him with love and sexual longing, sometimes viewing him with a gimlet eye. Marty’s watch with the expandable strap, which she wears because she can no longer fasten clasps or buckles, is like him, “annoying, yet dependable.” She remembers the heartache of the years her daughter fled to a Vermont commune and sent back her mother’s letters unopened. And she revisits the friends and neighbors she flirted with and occasionally fell for.

When Esther reads an obituary of a woman who was described as ordinary, she fears the same can be said of her. But Karmel’s subtle, psychologically acute rendering of Esther’s life reveals a woman who has lived fully, if not flamboyantly; loved deeply; and kept her dignity, irrepressible wit, and essential humanity. Being Esther is a spare book with cosmic implications and a huge heart.

Goldie Rubin Feld Rosenthal, the grandmother in The Secret of the Nightingale Palace by Dana Sachs (William Morrow, $14.99), is just as resilient, but as seen through the eyes of her 35-year-old, recently widowed granddaughter Anna, she’s not nearly so winning as Esther. Goldie stopped speaking to her granddaughter five years earlier when Anna married a man Goldie predicted would never amount to much. But now Anna’s husband is dead, and Goldie calls out of the blue with the suggestion that Anna drive the two of them from New York to San Francisco in Goldie’s vintage Rolls Royce to deliver a collection of valuable Japanese art, which Goldie acquired by mysterious means when her Japanese friends were shipped off to an internment camp during World War II.

Anna’s initial instinct is to refuse. Her grandmother is hypercritical of others and devoted to her own comfort, such as four-star restaurants where she tells everyone what to order, and luxurious hotels, neither of which she’s likely to find on Route 66. But for reasons she doesn’t fully understand, Anna agrees. What ensues is a quirky buddy trip that survives generational warfare, pent-up family resentment, a surprisingly fortuitous hospital stay, and a secret kept for more than half a century that gets Anna back on her feet, all the impossible, headstrong Goldie wanted in the first place.

Ellen Feldman is the author, most recently, of Next To Love. Her new novel, The Unwitting, will be published this year.