Age Difference Part I: Rereading from an Older Perspective

Robinjn emailed me the following message, and not only got me thinking about old favorites I see differently now that I’m a little older but also about age differences in general, which I’m going to write about in a separate entry (stay tuned). Robinjn recently went back and re-read a book she enjoyed, but found herself reacting completely differently to the book now that she’s older.

Book CoverPrompted by the “Mourning” thread**, I went and rooted out my old original copy of LaVyrle Spencer’s Years, one of my favorite books ever, and have been re-reading it.

[**WARNING: the “Mourning” thread is full o’ spoilers. Be ye warned. - SB Sarah]

I read the book when it was originally published in 1986 and several times in the years after, but it has probably been well over 15 years since I picked it up. I was delighted to find that it has more than withstood the test of time; fine writing is fine writing and Spencer’s descriptions of time and place on the North Dakota prairies in 1916 still resonate with truth (and if I ever decide to write a book, this is a primer for how to write descriptive passages with such clarity they ring like a bell).

What was unexpected was my different view of the chief protagonists. Years concerns Linnea, an 18 year old schoolmarm fresh out of normal school, and Teddy, an embittered 35 year old widower with a boy almost Linnea’s age. She, as young girls do, falls and falls hard. He agonizes over the feelings he has and tries to deny them every way he can. He knows darn well she is far too young for him. For him the years are the ultimate stumbling block, for her they are meaningless numbers.

When I first read this in my 20s I had very little understanding or appreciation for Teddy’s position. I thought the author dwelled too much on the years to create almost an artificial conflict and I was impatient with the concept that years would make a difference. Now, reading it at age 51, I find myself with a completely different viewpoint. Linnea really is too young. Teddy is right to be concerned and fearful of this relationship. My views of a 35 year old man and an 18 year old girl are completely switched from when I was 26 and reading the book for the first time.

I wonder if others have set a favorite down for many years, taken it back up and found a completely different story than they remembered, or a different opinion of the characters than they had when young? And when picking that book back up, has it withstood the test of time? Or, as many of the books I read when young have done, has it proven to be more shallow and far less well written than remembered?

It’s funny how one’s reaction to plot conflicts can change as one grows older and wiser. What about you? Have you ever gone back to a book and found your older/wiser/moreawesomer perspective changed a book entirely?

(Stay tuned for a long-mo-entry on age difference with more from Robinjn.)

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  1. 1
    Ducky says:

    When I was in high school, I hated it when the hero and heroine were seperated for years from each other (for example, a number of Judith McNaught books). That was just so long. Why couldn’t they just hash things out/work out whatever it was/not take that trip to Antartica right off?  Now that I am the ripe old age of 27, I find I have a lot more patience and understanding for how life can get in the way of happy every after.

    On the other hand, I am now much less forgiving of heros who constantly need to be in control or (to bring up Judith McNaught again) kick things off with an abduction. Stockholm’s loses its luster once you really stop to think about it, I guess.

  2. 2
    Cät von J says:

    I agree. As Ducky said: at the ripe age of (almost) 27, I´m less forgiving of heros AND heroines. And I don´t finish books when they don´t capture me. When I was still in my teens I had this weird approach to finish EVERY book I started (I wonder why…). Thank God I´m over that.

    There was this German book, Jana Freys Der Kuss meiner Schwester (My sister´s kiss) and I listened to Total Eclipse of Heart while reading (to add to all the emotion). Its about twin siblings, a boy and a girl. They fall in love and as soon as their love is uncovered she is send away to some far away relatives (and actually, I think thats the rather unsatisfying end). Without haven re-read it again I honestly wonder why I liked it so much and why it touched me so emotionally. God, was I crying! All this Romeo/Juliet-us-against-the-world-thing!
    BUT THEY´RE SIBLINGS!!! What was I thinking??!!
    I have it on my amazon whishlist and I´ll read it in the near future again. But I´m afraid I will be disappointed….

  3. 3
    Tina C. says:

    It is interesting how age and life experience can completely change your perspective on certain plot lines.  Like Robinjn, I absolutely loved Years.  When I picked it up the first time, I was probably 18 or 19, myself.  It was, then and now, one of the best romances I’ve ever read.  Also like Robinjn, I was frustrated with Teddy and his constant harping on their age difference.  I’m 44 now with a daughter who is 24.  She briefly dated a 35-year-old and I was a little taken aback by that.  Not so much in a “What is that pervert doing with my daughter” way, but still it was a little weird that he was actually closer in age to me than her.  If she had been 18, considering the vast difference in life experiences and the usual power dynamic that comes with that, I would have probably gone ballistic.  In other words, I really get Teddy’s hesitation now.

  4. 4

    I remember reading Daughter of the Night by Elaine Bergstrom back in the early nineties, when I was in high school. It was a vampire book (I was all about the vampires back then), and it was beautifully written historical fiction revolving around Countess Elizabeth Bathori. When I was a teenager, I completely missed the homoerotic relationship between Elizabeth and the female vampire in the series. Completely missed it. When I re-read the book last year, I just about fell off my chair.

    (And if anyone loves historical vampire books, I definitely recommend Shattered Glass, Blood Alone, Blood Rites, and Daughter of the Night, all by Elaine Bergstrom. Fabulous writing, and none of the historical periods are overdone. Nazi Germany, US in the fifties, etc. The “vampire” legend is very different, too. Love these books.)

  5. 5
    AgTigress says:

    This is a very interesting topic.  The example that leaps to my mind is not a romance novel, but I think my experience of it is germane to the question as a whole.  In Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison (1930), Harriet has reluctantly agreed to live openly and scandalously with her lover, because he has convinced her that he has a deep ideological objection to marriage as an institution.  Then, having had her on approval, as it were, for some time, he decides to relent and offer marriage.  Harriet reacts with utter fury, leaves him, and makes her anger at the way he treated her well-known in her circle, so that when he is subsequently murdered, she is held to have had a motive to kill him.

    This is Sayers, so it is a very good book in a multitude of ways, but I first read it when I was about 12 or 13, and I — wait for it — didn’t understand why Harriet was so angry when Philip changed his mind and wanted to marry her.  I really didn’t.  I thought (like many of the adult characters in the book) that, as Harriet had violated her own principles by living in sin at his insistence, she should have been grateful when the man relented!  I think I was probably in my 20s before I read it again, and on that reading, I got the point instantly:  the mendacity, the selfishness, the general sleazy smugness and arrogance of the man.  Harriet didn’t murder him, but by the time I was a young adult, as opposed to a young adolescent, I could easily see why she might have wanted to.

  6. 6
    Quizzabella says:

    @ Brigid Kemmerer,  I read Anne Rice’s vampire chronicles when I was 16/17 and completely missed all the homorotic subtext – I just thought they were all just really good, friends *facepalm*.

  7. 7
    Joanne says:

    I’ll have to take to my bed with a cold compress and smelling salts after reading that 27 is ‘older’. Ah well, perhaps I’ll just head on out to the pasture.

    Most of the Harlequin Romances from my youth don’t hold up well at all to a re-read now. They must have fed into whatever fantasies I had back in the day but now a domineering husband with his own island has all the appeal of a week-old corpse. Still, I keep them,  like love letters, from a (shallow) past.

    Reading recommendations from someone much younger than me are sometimes a problem. What appeals to a new romance reader or a younger person can sometimes leave me wondering WTF? but some of my current favorite books have come from those reviews. Fiction and life seen from a different perspective can be fun.

    Interesting topic!

  8. 8

    Not quite on topic but – I only read Gabaldon’s “Outlander” recently and I wonder if I might have felt differently about it if I’d read it when I was younger.  I’ll turn 50 this year (or 29 again. How many times have I been 29 now?) 

    Anyway, the heroine in Outlander really bothered me with her choice at the end.  I know there are sequels, but I don’t really care to read them.  That heroine who let herself get drawn into a new relationship was fine as long as I felt she had put her past aside.  In doing that, her husband in “today” would move on with life in his time and she would move on with her new one.  In choosing to go back, the book really lost me.

    My life lessons have taught me the importance of loyalty and I believe it’s a really big part of love. Both are foundations for building a marriage and a life.  If the heroine of that book had been an 18 year old girl, perhaps I could’ve tolerated her choice better. But she was supposedly an adult woman who’d survived on her on for years while her husband was at war. 

    So I understand your reaction.  Age differences don’t really bother me as much as some other things, but I see where you’re coming from.  And I suspect it is age (and some degree of wisdom) that makes one see things differently.  My much younger co-worker, a devoted romance fan, adored all the Outlander books.

  9. 9
    FD says:

    AgTigress, I’m smiling ruefully, because while at 13, I immediately and viscerally got how repulsive Philip’s intellectual dishonesty was, I did not really understand Harriet’s ferocious rejection of the King Cophetua dynamic, and couldn’t understand what Peter had done wrong. Baffled, I put it down to Harriet being traumatised and moved on.  Twenty years later, I enormously empathised with Harriet’s situation and understood completely the impulse to savage.

  10. 10
    FairyKat says:

    Absolutely love Strong Poison—and love Gaudy Night even more.  The Perfect Romantic Crime Novel.

    The novel that changed the most for me was Georgette Heyer’s Talisman Ring.  I loved Heyer in my teens, I pined for the Devil’s Cub years.  But I really didn’t get The Talisman Ring.  Mainly because the humour was all at the expense of Romantic teenagers who swoon over Byronic Heroes.  When I re-read it in my late twenties, I finally got the joke. 

    The Hero and Heroine are not the Aristocratic Highwayman and the Escaping Heiress, but rather the Serious and Reliable Gentleman and the Sensible and Managing Spinster. 

    I now think it’s one of Heyer’s funniest novels; and the best example I’ve ever seen of the understated but enthralling romance.  A quirk of his eyebrow, a smothered smile, a seemingly meaningless aside, but you just know they are soul mates who will be HEA.

  11. 11
    Kelly L. says:

    I read Elizabeth Hand’s Waking the Moon for the first time when I was 20 or 21. I was really insecure and had just dropped out of college due to financial reasons, and I related sharply to the heroine, Sweeney, who worshiped her charismatic friends and felt undefined without them, and who got kicked out of school and felt like all of life’s magic had been locked away from her. It was me, in so many respects.

    I reread the book a few years ago and just felt sorry for the poor kid. It was hard to even wrap my mind around how lost she was without a couple of friends who didn’t even treat her all that well in the first place. I just wanted to give her a hug and get her to therapy. Then I remembered my initial experience with the book, and I wanted to give my old self a hug and some therapy too!

    people99: I was a very different person back in ‘99…

  12. 12
    Amanda says:

    Regarding Outlander-
    Claire didn’t go back because she thought Jamie was going to die.  Besides, you don’t know she went back until the beginning of the next book anyway.  Claire went back because she was pregnant and knew that if she stayed her baby might not live in the post rising Scotland.  People starved to death and Claire knew that.  Going back was the only way she could ensure that she and Jamie’s child would live.

    I don’t think your age has anything to do with it.  My mom is 60 and loves the books as much as I do at 31.  Plus, the author was in her 30’s and older when she wrote the books.

  13. 13
    Amanda says:

    Unless of course you are talking about her choice to stay with Jamie in the first place, but that occurs in the middle of the book.  I have read that a lot of people had issue with her choosing Jamie over Frank, however, there were some clues that the marriage to Frank might have had it’s problems.  Plus, with all that Jamie and Claire went through, I can see where she would choose him.  But, I guess others might see it differently.

  14. 14
    cleo says:

    The Accidental Tourist by Ann Tyler.  This is one that changed for me every time I read it.  I think I first read it in college and I thought it was so funny.  I read it several times in my twenties – sometimes it was a more laugh out loud read than other times, but I always found it funny.  And at least once I laughed so hard in some parts that I was gasping for breath.

    And then I re-read it fairly recently after not reading it for many years – in my late 30s or early 40s – and it wasn’t funny.  I thought it held up pretty well, I still mostly liked the story, but I didn’t find it funny.  Maybe a little humorous in parts but mostly sad.  I’d completely missed the pathos when I was younger – oh yes, I knew it was sad that his life feel apart after his son was murdered, but I also thought the way Tyler described it was really funny.  And his siblings – so conventional that they were eccentric – were hilarious to me.  But now, not so much. 

    Humor is an odd thing, so I don’t know if it was only my advanced age or also my mood when I re-read it that made the difference.  I do think that being closer in age now to the main characters, especially Macon, the eccentric and emotionally distant hero, helped me see more of the pathos in the story. And perhaps now that I’m less emotionally distant myself, I just don’t find that as funny.  Hard to say.

  15. 15
    AgTigress says:

    @FD:  oddly enough, I did grasp at least part (not all) of Harriet’s resistance to Peter’s courtship even when I was a teenager, especially as he went into it with such confidence at the start.  Yet I was at first too dense and naive to understand what the repellent Philip had done that was so bad!
    Intellectual honesty is the underlying theme, brought to a climax in that shattering scene with the ‘college poltergeist’ near the end of Gaudy Night.  I think that it probably takes a degree of maturity to perceive and accept all the harsh ramifications of honesty.  Many people never do come to understand it.
    :-)

  16. 16
    Kelly Bishop says:

    The first time I read Jane Eyre, I was 18 and I really sympathized more with Rochester than Jane over their dilemma – since he was the one who was really trapped.

    When I was a little older I did finally get that she wasn’t just an uptight Victorian, Rochester WOULD have ended up treating her with contempt if she’d become his mistress. Jane understood Rochester better than he did himself.

    Rochester is the kind of guy that if you can’t meet on equal terms, he will run right over you…

  17. 17
    Meggrs says:

    Classic example—I read Gone With the Wind in Junior high, so I was about 12. I found Scarlett’s early dilemmas absolutely agonizing. She doesn’t get her “true love” Ashley? She’s a widow at 17 and her “life is over,” according to society? OMG the TRAGEDY!!

    Heh. At 35, I might have related more to Scarlett as she develops later in the book, but those terribly strong feelings of empathy and horror I had upon my first read would be nonexistent.

    I’ve found that I can see the differences in romantic movies and stories now, when the heroine chooses to stay with her husband instead of running off with the hot young stud who shows up and gives her the magic wang. As a teen, I would have found her choice heartbreaking, and now? Well, if she left her disabled but loyal husband for the hot cock, I would be PISSED.

    :)

  18. 18
    StarOpal says:

    Kind of in the same topic…

    I’ve noticed that some of my favorite books have shifted positions on the list as I’ve gotten older.

    For instance my favorite Austen title, starting when I was a teenager, used to be Pride and Prejudice. The first time I read Persuasion, I thought it was okay, but I didn’t really connect with it. Fast forward to my mid-twenties and it is now my favorite Austen. I understand the characters and (huh, unfortunately) things like heartbreak, regret, second chances, and growing into maturity, etc. in a different more substantial light.

    If that makes sense?

    (Still love P&P though!)

  19. 19
    Donna says:

    I recently reread Laurie McBain’s Dominick Family series, which a adored back in the day. I still have my originals purchased back in the 70’s in my too precious to keep on a bookshelf where the sun might damage it box. Did they hold up? Yes, and no, Laurie McBain still gets her props, but I was so surprised when I realized that Lucien & Dante were nearly 20 years older that Sabrina & RheaClaire respectively.  Back when I was 17 it made zero impression. It wasn’t wrong for the time period or even for the characters. Sabrina’s life experience made her older than her years and Rhea Claire’s innocence and loyalty were what Dante needed to heal a wound or two. Still… 20 years… YIKES!

  20. 20
    Jennifer R says:

    I still don’t like huge age differences for the most part. I read a lot of Judith Krantz growing up and I thought, “Really, how easy-peasy would it have been for Gigi’s best friend (note that best friend Sasha is about 3 years older) to marry her FATHER in Scruples 2 and everybody is cool with that and not weirded out at all?” Then again, I guess Gigi being with Sasha’s brother… just added to the mess :P

    What I thought was more realistic (oddly enough) in that series was Sasha marrying Josh (Sasha has a thing for marrying guys her dad’s age) in Scruples 1 and then Josh finding out that Sasha had a slutty phase before marrying him and utterly freaking the hell out to the point where Sasha had to get a divorce. It usually seems like these older/younger relationships don’t cover the sheer weirdness of the dynamic, such as the cultural mores they grew up with being drastically different.

    Also weird was reading Damia by Anne McCaffrey, where the hero has been working for Damia’s mother since he was a teenager and has known Damia since she was born. (Added detail: at one point Afra was debating whether or not he should get together with Damia’s mom while she was still single, because the Rowan was horny and driving everyone insane about it and someone might just have to take the bullet…) Um, YEAH. It’s pretty clear that Afra wasn’t into Rowan romantically anyway, but still. Weird.

  21. 21
    Kate Pearce says:

    I must be weird, because age differences don’t bother me at all if they are well written and if the romance/love between the couple seems believable, I’ll buy it. -If it makes me feel squicky, then the author hasn’t done his/her job properly.
    I loved These Old Shades for example and that Leonie says she would rather be the last woman the duke loves than the first.
    I do agree with other posters that my take on a lot of ‘love stories’ and where my sympathies lie, has changed considerably as I got older and realized that everything isn’t always so clear cut.

  22. 22
    sweetsiouxsie says:

    I am not sure of the age difference between Cathy and Heathcliffe in Wuthering Heights, but I know I changed my opinion of their characters as I matured. I used to think the book was such an achingly wonderful romance, but NO MORE!!!
    This is a story about a heroine and hero who are totally selfish and self-serving. Their motto should be “I want what I want and I want it now!” The hero loves the heroine? Hah! No!! All he wants is revenge!! The heroine wants a wealthy husband and a nice, comfortable house.

  23. 23
    Synergie says:

    I was 12 when I first read Emma, and was so eeked out by Knightly being such an old man.  Now that I’m nearly his age, I find myself so much more bothered by his fascination with such an immature child!  (I reached that conclusion at the ripe old age of 19 or so, and I stick by it.)

    I glossed over it all then and with each rereading by telling myself that was the norm at the time.

  24. 24
    Ulrike says:

    I was surprised by my differing perceptions of the Little House books, reading them as a mother of 4 in my 30s vs reading them as a child. My sympathy for Ma was virtually nonexistent before, and now, I feel for her almost more than any other character!

  25. 25
    JaniceG says:

    Regarding Outlander, I came to it as a mature adult after several friends whom I respect kept recommending it. Unfortunately, I didn’t like it: I found the heroine selfish and self-centered, and her near-immediate assimilation in the older period, and their acceptance of her, totally unbelievable.

    As for the main topic, the book that most changed for me reading it at a younger age and then at an older age is Robert Heinlein’s Door Into Summer, which technically is shelved with science fiction but is at heart a romance… a really squicky romance. The age difference question is a little problematic because of the existence of reliable cryogenics, but even more problematic because the 30ish hero is best friends and business partners with the love interest’s father, the love interest is 12 years old, and when he manages to travel back in time, he goes to the love interest’s Girl Scout camp to explain his scheme so they can get together with their ages more equalized (among other things).

    When I was younger, I thought it was really romantic that he would wait for her to grow up, and she would remain faithful to him and get herself frozen. Later in life when I read it again, I found it really creepy.

  26. 26
    Michelle says:

    @StarOpal:

    Ah, Persuasion!  Every rereading of that book adds to my love.  I really think it is Austen’s best.  I, too, thought it was rather boring when I first discovered Austen (12? 13?)  Now, I understand Anne so much better – it is often the things that we don’t do that we regret the most, and the most painful things in life are often the things we bring upon ourselves.  BUT, there are second chances – life isn’t a one shot or nothing deal when it comes to happiness.

  27. 27
    Kirsten says:

    The one that comes immediately to mind is The Shattered Chain by Marion Zimmer Bradley, which is more of a crossover sf/fantasy than a romance.

    This was a book that, in college, was my introduction to feminism. Before that feminists always seemed hostile and upset about incomprehensible things (like spelling the sign on the bathroom door “womyn”). The world these women live in and the choices they make were real door openers for me into why feminism might be relevant and matter.

    Now when I look back at it almost 20 years later, I get irritated with choices I admired then, and understand more why Rohana chose to stay in an unhappy situation. But while I still love the book, and the Free Amazons, and Darkover in general, when I went back to this book last, I kept thinking “Hey, your feminism is showing”! It was so overt. Obviously, I needed to be hit over the head with it, and it’s reflective of the time in which it was written, but my gosh!

  28. 28
    Pam says:

    Very interesting discussion.  Age differences have always made me mildly uncomfortable when they were extreme, but character has always trumped age.  These Old Shades comes immediately to mind. Even the first time I read it in my late teens or early twenties, I kept mentally recalculating Leonie and Avon’s ages, yet I have never wavered in my affection for that novel, because Heyer is such a master.  She is always conscious of the fact that the age difference is a problem, but she constructs her characters in such a way that their relationship becomes plausible and a emotional triumph.  She is not quite as successful in Convenient Marriage, because the conditions of the heroine’s life are not as extreme as Leonie’s.  One has more difficulty forgetting how rapidly and radically a teenager can change and the potential disaster these changes could create in a real relationship. Yet when Horatia returns from her wedding trip and assures her sister that marriage is agreeable, Heyer suggests that her heroine is not only feisty but quite pleased by the carnal aspects of marriage.  When I was younger and compared Horry with myself, that was cool.  Now I compare her to my daughters, and it’s hard not to think of Horry being forced into a specific mold before she was even twenty.

    Age differences are only one factor that alters according to the maturity and experience of the reader.  I read The Scarlet Letter for the first time in eighth grade and loathed it.  I didn’t even know what the damned letter stood for.  I had to read it again in 9th grade and it didn’t improve, being all doom and gloom and laborious language.  However, when I read it one last time in my thirties for a college course, I finally got it.  It would never be a favorite, but it was powerful in a moody, atmospheric way, and it was well taught.  Which brings me to a question.  Why do English teachers force feed students literature that so few of them are ready to appreciate?  No, that’s not quite the question.  Maybe the question should be why are students expected to read things that are meaningless to them and then penalized for not liking the books?  At fourteen, I absorbed books like a sponge, loved reading, and had no critical sense.  By the time I graduated from high school, I could say the right words and I had faked my way through most of the required reading.  So how many kids are turned off from reading itself from Dickens exposure at too early an age? 

    I know I digress, but to me the fact that we respond to books differently according to our age and experience seems wicked obvious.  So why don’t curriculum designers seem to get that?

  29. 29
    Karen H says:

    I know I’m late to the party (too many family visitors lately, and I know I read the old posts so maybe other do, too) but I’m very happy to see I’m not the only one who hates big age differences and didn’t much care for Outlander.  I just read it a few months ago because it was free for my new Amazon Kindle and only finished it because everybody said it was so great.  I didn’t like Claire and the horrors she and Jamie went through, without even a HEA, turned my stomach!

    Back to the age difference.  I prefer no more than 10 years age difference and sometimes have stopped reading a book when it was another 18 year old virgin with mid-thirties man.  When I was 22, a man I worked with asked if I would go out with him if I wasn’t married (which I was).  I very kindly (I thought) told him that I wouldn’t because he was too old for me.  He was 29!  Anyway, the worst I ever read was Elizabeth Daniels’ “Paradise in His Arms.”  From fantasticfiction.co.uk:

    Obsessed with Captain Caleb Innes, a bronzed seaman, Kate Paradise, the innocent young daughter of Caleb’s childhood sweetheart, hopes to gain his attention by proving to him that she is a grown woman.

    I don’t remember the mother being his childhood sweetheart but a woman he had a relationship with as an adult.  He actually helped deliver Kate when she was born!  Ick! ICK! ICK!!  I didn’t finish the book because I was just too weirded out.  It’s definitely OLD SKOOL.

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