Book review: ‘When Did Everybody Else Get So Old?’

Jun 5, 2017 by

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In the next few years, I will celebrate my 50th birthday. My sons will graduate from high school (if we’re lucky!) and we will be empty nesters. My parents will turn 80, an age that strikes me as much older than they both seem. When I consider these realities, I despair — just a little — and wonder where time has gone. Why do I suddenly seem so solidly middle-aged?

'When Did Everybody Else Get So Old?'

‘When Did Everybody Else Get So Old?’

Jennifer Grant’s excellent book, When Did Everybody Else Get So Old? Indignities, Compromises and the Unexpected Grace of Midlife, came to my doorstep in the nick of time. Using her experience as a narrative frame, Grant explores the many complexities of midlife, reflecting on the joy and sorrow that can accompany this liminal space between being young and being old.

Reading Grant’s story normalizes my own aging process and the struggle that can come from raising teenage children, dealing with the grief of fractured or lost relationships and facing the seemingly inexplicable challenges that accompany a body at the precipice of decline.

Loosely following the chronology of Grant’s 40s, When Did Everybody Else Get So Old? explores issues that will resonate with most readers, even those who have yet to reach middle age. Grant expresses the struggles we will all face about the inevitability of growing older with a grace and humor that asks us to embrace time’s passing. She affirms that life itself is a gift, and every day we continue to live is a reflection of this largesse we’ve been offered.

Still, growing older comes with its own set of challenges, something Grant makes clear in her narrative. She wonders about her vocation and whether she is doing what’s she’s been called to do. She worries that her own creative efforts pale in comparison to a friend’s and that she hasn’t yet made an appropriate mark on the world.

And more concerns: How do we deal with an accumulation of disappointments, both personal and professional? How do we navigate the aging and death of those we love? How do we contend with our bodies, which sag, wrinkle and creak? How do we deal with the rapid passing of time, marked clearly by children who transition from diapers to college in a matter of seconds?

When did we get so old, just like everybody else?

Grant contends with these questions in compelling ways. Her vulnerability and humor provide insight into her own life and into that of her reader. Grant’s beautiful prose is a treat to savor, and her reflections on middle age hit the mark.

When Did Everybody Else Get So Old? reflects the seasoned writing skills Grant honed as a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. She is also the author of five other books, including an adoption memoir. Grant’s ability to deftly tell engaging stories is on full display, and for the first time since Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which I read five years ago, I stayed up late into the night finishing Grant’s book. (Though, as she notes, insomnia can also accompany middle age.)

Popular culture has crafted a caricature of middle age: the balding man with a nifty comb-over purchasing a red sports car; the woman overcome with hot flashes, wearing clothes more suitable for a teen at the mall than an insecure mother driving the soccer carpool. Grant acknowledges the caricatures and then shows that middle age is much more complex, nuanced and rich, a stage of life to embrace rather than a crisis to endure.

When Did Everybody Else Get So Old? joins a number of recent books addressing middle age, including Notker Wolf’s Aging Starts in Your Mind and Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s fantastic Life Reimagined, which explores the science of middle age but also, like Grant, the spiritual dimensions of growing older. What I like best about Grant’s book is that, in the midst of others’ hand-wringing about growing old, Grant’s view of middle age is filled with grace, with the recognition that middle age is one part of what Mary Oliver calls our “wild and precious life” and that we should feel gratitude for the time we’ve been given, the communities that surround us and the only guarantee we have: this moment.

In her final, breathtaking chapter, Grant writes: “None of us can make it last any longer than it will. What we can do, as Solomon writes, is eat and drink and enjoy the fruits of our labor, knowing them to be gifts from God. And that’s just as it always has been, and as it will be.” Her affirmation here challenges me to live my middle years with the grace this perspective offers, and for that I am grateful.

Melanie Springer Mock is professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore.

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