Reading lists

20 books everyone should read in their forties

From novels about parenting to making love last, here are some great books to read in your forties

A gif of a birthday cake with '40' candles atop, with flickering flames.
How many have you read? Image: Stuart Simspon/Penguin

"Life really does begin at 40," once wrote the psychiatrist Carl Jung. "Up until then, you are just doing research." Which is to say: most people should have a fair idea of who they are by 40. But just because you've got some life experience under your belt, it doesn't mean there isn't still a lot to learn.

Growing children, elderly parents, finding the true meaning of happiness and making love last are just some of the issues that begin to work their way into life after 40. It may even be the first time many of us begin to think seriously about our own mortality. 

But, as with all of life's big questions, answers can always be found in great literature. 

'Her mouth was as wise as her eye ... and her voice was like her coat, rich and supple and somehow full of secrets.'

The Price of Saltlater published as Carol, by Patricia Highsmith (1952)

This was Patricia Highsmith's only novel explicitly about a lesbian affair, and the first such mainstream book with a happy ending. It is, in short, a love story between a 19-year-old girl and an older woman.

Therese is stuck in a dead-end job in a New York department store with a boyfriend she doesn't love. But then, one day at work, she sees Carol, a 30-something married woman in the throes of a bitter divorce and custody battle. “Their eyes met at the same instant,” writes Highsmith. “Her eyes were gray, colorless, yet dominant as light or fire, and caught by them, Therese could not look away. Her mouth was as wise as her eyes, Therese thought, and her voice was like her coat, rich and supple and somehow full of secrets.”

Love blooms and soon they are on a forbidden road trip together. In each other's arms, their loneliness drains away. It is a story of forbidden passion that reveals the way true love – not to mention desire – can strike at any stage in life, sometimes in the most unexpected of ways.

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst (2018)

This gripping saga follows the lives of a group of (mostly gay) Oxford university friends, after they meet a dreamboat new student by the name of David Sparsholt. In him, we meet our protaginist, first when narrator Freddie spies him through his dorm-room window: "a rhythmical shadow ... massive and abstracted, as if shaped from light itself.”

Split in to five sections, it leaps through the men's lives from passionate youth to “the dense tangled stasis of adult life.” David is the meat of the first few chapters, before handing the reigns of the story to his also-gay son Johnny, who comes of age in London just as homosexuality has been decriminalized. There is of course – as the title implies – a sensational scandal in the middle, too, as it bounces from the post-war years through the swinging sixties, seventies, and onto London's gay scene in 2012.

The story is too complex to break into bitesize chunks. But, as a whole, it is a gorgeous novel about art, sex, truth and lies with a keen eye on how the secrets of our past like to rise from the dead. It's also about family, marriage and children. Above all that, though, it's a powerful portrait of gay life – and its history – over the past 80 years.

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