Middle Age: A Romance

Middle Age: A Romance

2.5 7
by Joyce Carol Oates

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Middle Age portrays a uniquely contemporary phenomenon: the propensity of the affluent middle-aged in America to reinvent themselves romantically when the energies of youth have faded or they have become disillusioned.

The setting is Salthill-on-Hudson, NY, a wealthy community where "everyone is middle-aged"—but looks much younger. In this intensely


Middle Age portrays a uniquely contemporary phenomenon: the propensity of the affluent middle-aged in America to reinvent themselves romantically when the energies of youth have faded or they have become disillusioned.

The setting is Salthill-on-Hudson, NY, a wealthy community where "everyone is middle-aged"—but looks much younger. In this intensely social environment, Adam Berendt, a charismatic and mysterious sculptor, dies unexpectedly, plunging his most intimate friends into grief. Posthumously, he has a powerful effect upon a number of individuals in ways they could not have anticipated.

Editorial Reviews

"You leave home one afternoon, you never return as yourself," thinks a recently deceased man in the opening pages of Oates' immaculately plotted and emotionally resonant novel. The dead man is sculptor Adam Berendt (or is he really?), and the grieving community is the determinedly middle-aged Salthill-on-Hudson. The novel itself is both a good old-fashioned mystery and an inquiry into questions about identity and love, about who we become when one among us disappears. No one, it seems, ever really knew Adam, though that never stopped people from believing that he was their best friend or destined to be their lover. No one could name just why they loved him, but they did. No one is prepared for the marriages and dreams that crumble in his absence; for the tricks that memory plays; or for the revelations, both sudden and quiet, that ultimately lead Oates' cast toward more satisfying, honest, even dignified lives. There is light, a lot of it, at the end of this long book.
—Beth Kephart

Publishers Weekly
A romance? The hero dies in the opening pages, adolescents renounce their parents and the grownups aren't true to themselves, much less each other, because they have no idea what they are. In the Lexus-crowded town of Salthill-on-Hudson, husbands and wives share beds in which the linens meet more crisply than the bodies. "How eternal is a single night, and of what eternities are our long marriages composed!" And yet romance is deep in the bones of this soaring epic of renewal and redemption, an Easter of the flesh, a Viagra of the soul. Sculptor Adam Berendt goes into cardiac arrest while saving a child from drowning, and so redeems the 50-somethings of Salthill with his death; he confers the idea and the actuality of grace on their lives. It may be said of Oates's oeuvre that it is a long marriage between author and reader, composed of many eternities. Her sentences seem to contain more sentiment per word than anyone else's. She punishes us with terrible truths: Death lurks at every window and Eros is a demon, worshiped at awful cost. In marriages charged with such import, one must cheat in order to breathe, as Augusta Cutler discovers after Adam's death, when she leaves her husband, Owen, to ferret out the truth about Adam, and herself, and to find respite. Reminiscent of her powerful Black Water, but equipped with a happy ending, Oates's latest once more confirms her mastery of the form. (Sept. 10) Forecast: Of late, Oates can do no wrong. Deep in her career, she is pulling out the stops again. Since the success of Blonde, and Oprah's February 2001 selection of We Were the Mulvaneys, more readers than ever will be gravitating to her new work (and her backlist, too), and they should bethoroughly satisfied with her latest offering. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Oates on febrile relationships. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Oates's fat new opus (her 29th full-length novel, if anyone is still counting) traces the effects of an inscrutable sculptor's benign personality and aura on a townful of admirers who find their lives permanently altered by the memory of him. Adam Berendt, the mystery man of the prosperous upstate New York village of Salthill-on-Hudson, suffers fatal cardiac arrest while attempting to save a drowning child. The several (mostly married) women who had adored his playful, provocative intellect and perversely attractive physical ugliness (including one blind eye) react variously to the loss of their social circle's very own Socrates (for Oates makes it explicit: even giving Adam a faithful dog named Apollodoros, after the real Socrates's dutiful young companion). Neurasthenic divorcee Abigail Des Pres works through a borderline-incestuous fixation on her surly teenaged son. Thirtyish bookstore owner Marina Troy becomes the surprised beneficiary of Adam's whimsical largesse. Adam's attorney Roger Cavanagh battles his embittered ex-wife and accusatory adolescent daughter, while enduring sexual fixations on both the unresponsive Marina (who soon moves away) and a feisty feminist paralegal. Timid Camille Hoffmann soothes her loneliness by "mothering" a brood of abandoned canines (including, of course, "Apollo"), and Rubens-like beauty Augusta Cutler (the Shelley Winters part) travels the country deciphering the mystery of Adam's past. As in Oates's Broke Heart Blues (1999), the oracle proves something less than his acolytes had imagined. Still, all ends more or less affirmatively (this being a "romance"); there's even a climactic reconciliation in a fabricated Garden of Eden. Middle Age hasits moments, but it's basically redundant and shapeless (Oates is still introducing new material barely ten pages prior to its end), and very heavily indebted to Plato's numerous portrayals of Socrates (caves and shadows loom up frequently), several Iris Murdoch novels (Revered Charismatic Figure Shapes Lives of Those Who Loved Him), and especially John Updike's Couples (Salthill=Tarbox?; and the concluding chapters contain multiple echoes of Couples's denouement). It's better than Blonde. But that's a little like saying that Plato's Timaeus goes down easier than the Parmenides.
“Hilarious and mournful. [Oates’s] realism is laced with suspense, her mastery of storytelling on full display.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“A magnificent treat.… Middle Age is the work of a master in her prime.”

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.25(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.56(d)

Read an Excerpt

Survived By..


How Death enters your life. A telephone ringing.

And maybe you're still waiting for Adam Berendt to call. And maybe you're confused, your heart already pumping absurdly, when a stranger's voice utters the name Adam Berendt and you answer eagerly, hopefully.

"Yes? I'm Marina Troy. What -- what is it?"

That instant before fear strikes. Fear like a sliver of ice entering the heart.


Thwaite was the bearer of Adam Berendt's death. She would learn.

An ugly name, isn't it? Though the child's name, Samantha, is beautiful.

It was Thwaite that would stick in Marina's brain like a burr. Thwaite that became her obsession, she who would have defined herself as a woman free of obsession. A reasonable intelligent unemotional woman yet how Thwaite lodged in her brain as suffocation, choking, tar-tasting death. Thwaite Thwaite in her miserable sleep those nights following Adam's death. Sobbing aloud, furious: "If I'd been there with him on the boat, I wouldn't have let Adam die."

In the derangement of grief Marina Troy quickly came to believe this.


Local TV News! How Adam would have been embarrassed, if, just maybe, secretly proud.

Good Samaritan. Adam Berendt. Resident of Salthill-on-Hudson. July Fourth accident. Hudson River. Rescue of eight-year-old. Adam's face on the glassy screen: squinting his blind eye, smiling. That big head like something sculpted of coarse clay. A mere moment on the TV screen. Swift cut to the much younger Thwaites, parents of the rescued child. Thwaite. Harold and Janice. Jones Point residents. Devastated by. Tragic episode. So very sorry. So very grateful. Courageous man sacrificing his life for our daughter. Our Samantha. Our prayers will be with Adam Berendt. We are hoping to make contact with his family, his survivors. Oh, we hope ... Marina switched off the TV in disgust.

How could she bear it, the banality of Adam as a "Good Samaritan." The banality of the Thwaites' emotion, how disappointingly ordinary they were, and young, stammering into microphones thrust into their dazed faces.

"Well. I must learn to bear it. And more."

She was an adult woman, she knew of loss, death. She was not a naive, self-pitying person.

Her mother was chronically ill, and her father had died three years ago at the age of seventy-nine, so Marina knew, Marina knew what to expect from life, every chichŽ becomes painfully true in time, yet you survive until it's your turn: you don't become middle-aged without learning such primitive wisdom. Yet, when Marina's father had died, Marina had not been taken by surprise. That death had been not only expected, but "merciful." After cancer operations, and months of chemotherapy, the fading of Marina's father's life had been a slow fading of light into dusk and finally into dark. And there you are: death.

Not like Adam's death.

"Adam, God damn you. Why."

She was desperate to recall the last time they'd spoken. She shut her eyes, rubbing her eyes with the palms of her hands: Adam's face!

A doctor at the Jones Point Medical Center had prescribed a sedative for Marina Troy. (Did that mean she'd become hysterical? She'd lost all dignity, and collapsed?) Next morning staggering from her bed that was like a grave, at the top of her house on North Pearl Street. Her storybook house, as Adam had called it fondly. As Marina Troy was a storybook creature to be rescued. (By him?) In sweat-smelling nightclothes, a strap slipping off her shoulder, tugging at a window to raise it higher must breath! must breath! There was some fact that plagued her with its cruelty, its injustice: what? The last time we spoke, I didn't know. If I had known. The ceiling careened over her head with an air of drunken levity. Lilac fleur-de-lis wallpaper of subtly mocking prettiness. Thwaite mixed with the church bells. Thwaite Thwaite clamoring jeering in her head.

Marina's bedroom was a small charming room with small charming windows of aged glass, dating to the mid-1800s, windowpanes badly in need of caulking, overlooking St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church with its heraldic spire floating in the night sky, and its ancient bumpy churchyard. (In which Adam Berendt would certainly not be buried. Adam had been pagan, not Catholic; and Adam had wanted to be "burnt to a crisp" when he died.) North Pearl Street was one of Salthill's oldest streets, hilly and very narrow, and it dead-ended with three charming woodframe houses, one of which was Marina Troy's.

Somehow it had happened (when, exactly?) she'd become thirty-eight years old.

Young enough to be his daughter, Adam Berendt used to joke.

Don't be ridiculous! You're, what? -- fifty? Fifty-two?

Marina, to be perfectly frank, I've lost count.

She removed her sweat-soaked nylon nightgown and wadded it into a ball to toss onto the floor. She'd have liked to peel off her sticky itchy skin and do the same. In the silence following the church bells came the echo Thwaite! Thwaite. The sound of death, those hateful people, negligent parents, youngish, scared, reading off prepared statements to TV reporters, uncertain whether they should smile, or not smile, but one should always smile on TV, yes? -- if only fleetingly, sadly? In truth, Marina didn't detest these people. It was Thwaite that had insinuated itself into her head. Thwaite snarled like her long crimped dark-red hair, which by day she wore plaited and twined about her head ("like Elizabeth I") but by night it snagged and snarled, snaky tendrils trailing across her mouth. Thwaite a mass of such snarls no hairbrush could be dragged through. Thwaite that was the fairy-tale riddle: what is my name, my name is a secret, my name is your death, can you guess my name? Thwaite the helpless tenderness she'd long felt for Adam Berendt, who had been neither her husband nor her lover. Thwaite powerful as no other emotion Marina had ever felt for another person...

Meet the Author

Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Medal of Humanities, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978.

Brief Biography

Princeton, New Jersey
Date of Birth:
June 16, 1938
Place of Birth:
Lockport, New York
B.A., Syracuse University, 1960; M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1961

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Middle Age: A Romance 2.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I think it's time to take a look at the author's bona fides. Before I bowed out at about 150 pages, I'd decided the game wasn't worth the candle. I might be wrong, but the dude she spent so much time edifying didn't seem to deserve the attention. Does Joyce Carol know something I don't?
Guest More than 1 year ago
I absolutely hated the lates JCOates book I attempted, 'I'll Take You There' so I was not sure about this one. I was pleasantly surprised. Although the characters are not exactly likeable, I really got caught up in their lives. I expected a strange ending, (it was OK) but the stories about all the different characters were very absorbing and you start to care deeply for everyone. A very keen look at an affluent New York suburb. This book will appeal mostly to women and would probably be a great book club choice. Recommend.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Advertised as a romance, the book is much more than that. 'Middle Age' paints a disturbing picture of suburbia and yet pushes the reader on to see how the characters reinvent themselves for the better.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Middle Age is about several upper class characters exploring potential new paths at the mid-point of their lives. At its centre is Adam Berendt whose life is unexpectedly cut off, but whose influence and Socratic interrogation of life acts as a catalyst to transform his friends in the tight-knit community of Salthill. Their lives, as they understand them, dissolve upon his death to be reformed. The mystery of Adam¿s past is threaded throughout the novel opening dozens of different possible beginnings to his life at the same time as multiple endings to the other characters¿ lives are imagined. Oates¿ tremendous skill is to draw a multitude of realistic detail while emotionally constructing her characters¿ thoughts. This method works to unearth strange revelations in her contemplation of mortality and the depthless possibilities of experience. The characters tear off the costumes of their present identity to wear new masks and reconstitute their sense of being. Marina Troy¿s potentiality as an artist has lain dormant for many years, but, through Adam¿s bequest of a residence for solitude, she is given the possibility of expressing her vision. Augusta Cutler leaves her secure life to pursue dangerous new possibilities and trace Adam¿s past. These stories as well as those of the other characters are told in a revolving narrative focus that juxtaposes the characters¿ intentions with the dramatic realizations of their experiences. Their middle age lives turn out not to be about just endings, but multiple beginnings as well. The novel gives a heartfelt portrait of characters that identify themselves alternatively as amorphous and fabled beings and desperate to break from their identification of an ordinary life.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Made myself finish what I started. Book is beyond anticlimatic. I do love this author but a disappointment.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago