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Whether you’re participating in our Lifetime of Reading Challenge or you’ve found this booklist looking for novels that span decades while following a protagonist’s life, we know you’ll find your next great read below. Our list of recommended books spanning a character’s lifetime includes a wide variety of fiction titles as well as some excellent memoirs.
You can read all about the Lifetime of Reading Challenge, find new book lists each month, and download your free printable book tracker here.
Books help us appreciate all of the different phases of life, but there’s also a lot to learn by seeing how someone – real or fictional – develops over time as they are shaped by their personal experiences and by the changing world around them.
The titles on this booklist feature both female and male protagonists who vary in race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, class, background, ability/disability, lifestyle, and more. However, if you are specifically interested in reading a book that takes place over a character’s life span while crisscrossing the globe, you’ll find numerous novels that follow one character for many years on our list of Books that Span Multiple Continents.
As always, you are welcome to choose any title that you’d like to read for the Lifetime of Reading Challenge this month, but we hope that our list of recommended books spanning a character’s lifetime will be a good starting point. We’ve selected a combination of newer releases as well as older titles that are usually available without a wait from your local library.
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Books that Span Decades While Following a Character's Lifetime
The Magnificent Lives of Marjorie Post
by Allison Pataki
Majorie, childhood through 80s
In her childhood, Majorie worked to glue cereal boxes together for her father, the creator of Grape-Nuts, followed by the successful Post cereal empire. His company led the family to extreme wealth, but Majorie wasn’t content to sit at home as American royalty.
While entertaining the rich and famous was part of her life, she also wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. This included everything from outrunning Nazis to serving the homeless during the Great Depression. She was also married four times and built impressive real estate along the way, including now-infamous Mar-a-Lago.
The Book Girls Say…We can’t wait to read this one! It includes a lot of US history as Majorie Post was touched by all the events of her lifetime, which spanned 1887-1973. Those details are said to be mixed into great storytelling and romance.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Evelyn, 20s through 70s
Aging and reclusive movie icon Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to talk about her time in show business. Everyone is shocked when she picks an unknown reporter, Monique, to log her personal history, but why?
Monique slowly unwraps Evelyn's life from the 1950s to the present as she chronicles her past life and relationships. Along the way, Monique discovers things about her own background. As the book covers so much of Evelyn’s life, including seven husbands, it moves quickly and will keep you engaged and entertained for hours.
The Red Address Book
by Sofia Lundberg
Doris, childhood through her nineties
Throughout Doris's life, she's documented the people she encounters in a red address book that was given to her by her father when she was just a young girl. Now, at 96 and living alone in Sweden, she begins looking back through the address book, especially at all those who she has crossed out one by one as they died. In her bittersweet trip down memory lane, she reflects back on those who entered her life for various reasons and seasons, each making a mark on who she would become.
Doris sets out to document her life, from working as a maid in Sweden, to modeling in Paris before escaping WWII, to searching for a lost love in Manhattan. By documenting her personal and family past, she hopes to help her only living relative, a grandniece named Jenny.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐
94% Would Recommend to a Friend
Kitchens of the Great Midwest
by J. Ryan Stradal
Eva, childhood through the next 30 years
This unique novel follows approximately 30 years in the life of Eva Thorvald and follows her journey to become the star chef behind a legendary and secretive pop-up supper club. Rather than seeing Eva’s life through her own eyes, however, everything we know about Eva is told to us through the filter of another character.
In a series of eight short stories that will ultimately become intertwined, we see Eva evolve. The stories are told by a wide variety of people, from her father to her first boyfriend, and even a jealous rival, who each introduce their own perspectives and prejudice to Eva’s life story.
Additionally, each of the stories also revolves around a single dish of food, making Kitchens of the Great Midwest a great book that spans a lifetime, but also an excellent foodie novel!
The Book Girls Say... Angela really enjoyed the unique structure of this novel. She also really loved the references to music and bands that were popular in each time period as the book progresses.
Some readers are turned off by the use of foul language in the book, so keep that in mind if it's a deal-breaker for you.
The Dearly Beloved
by Cara Wall
Charles, Lily, James, and Nan, early adulthood throughout life
It’s 1963 in Greenwich Village when Charles, Lily, James, and Nan meet.
Charles was destined to follow in the footsteps of his father - a history professor at Harvard - until a lecture about faith led him instead into ministry. James comes from a challenging Chicago family, with an alcoholic father and an anxious mother. Charles and James cross paths when they are both hired to lead the historic Third Presbyterian Church through turbulent times, and their personal differences make it challenging for them to work together.
Charles meets Lily, a fiercely intellectual woman who tells him that she’ll never believe in God. They don’t make any sense together, he can’t help falling in love. James is drawn to Nan, who grew up in a devout Mississippi family as the daughter of a minister and debutante. James is full of skepticism and Nan’s constant faith helps to guide him.
The Dearly Beloved follows these two couples through many years of love and friendship as well as jealousy and forgiveness. Together these couples face the many challenges of life from marriage and parenthood to death and grieving, and everything in between. The novel explores faith, motherhood, women’s liberation, friendship, and even autism. You’ll initially be fully immersed in the early 1960s - a time caught between conservatism and revolution - and as story progresses, you’ll see the four main characters set against the backdrop of major changes in New York City.
The Book Girls Say… Some readers have asked whether this is specifically a religious book or whether you have to be religious to enjoy this book. Reviewers say that this book is more of a philosophical exploration of faith and that even non-religious readers will enjoy it.
If you’re looking for another book that follows two couples throughout several decades of marriage, friendship, and lifes challenges - but without the religious undertones - we recommend Good Company by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney. This book gets lower reviews, but Angela really enjoyed it, and especially recommends it for theater lovers.
by Charmain Wilkerson
Eleanor, teen years through end of life
This novel opens in present-day California shortly after Eleanor’s death. She has left behind a voice recording for her two adult children - Byron (in his 40s) and Benny (in her 30s). She’s also left them a traditional Caribbean black cake that she tells them to share “when the time is right.”
Her children, it turns out, only know a small part of their mom’s life story. Posthumously, Eleanor is finally ready to share her truth so that Byron and Benny can truly know and understand their family history.
As the story unfolds, everything that her children thought they knew about their lineage and themselves will be rocked to the core, and by the time they finally share the black cake, there will be another person joining them at the table.
The Book Girls Say… Although Eleanor has already died when this novel begins, through her voice recordings, this novel traces the story of her life and shows how the choices she made over the years impacted not only her future, but also those of everyone in her family. Angela rated this book 5 stars and highly recommends the audiobook version because the accents really bring the story to life.
The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street
by Susan Jane Gilman
Malka, teens through 80s
While fleeing Russia in 1913, young Malka Treynovsky is determined to get her family to the United States - the land of opportunity and dreams. After arriving via Ellis Island, her visions of a better life are quickly tattered when the Lower East Side isn’t easy to survive as a Russian Jewish family.
Over the next 70 years, Malka transforms herself into Lillian Dunkle, "The Ice Cream Queen." She creates her own empire, and this novel shows how a life story can be shaped by notable moments throughout history.
While her public persona as the Ice Cream Queen seems endearing, it’s largely a facade for a more complex, less-likeable woman who was shaped by the challenges of her childhood.
The Book Girls Say… Melissa loves novels that span the decades of a character’s life so you can see their personal evolution and how their decisions are impacted by past events. This book is no exception. However, go in knowing that Lillian isn’t intended to be a likable character throughout the book.
by Dave Grohl
Dave Grohl, childhood through fifty
In this memoir, Dave Grohl tells the stories of lifetime. It begins with his childhood in Springfield, Virginia, teaching himself to drum and dreaming of being a musician someday. Then he tells of his early adult years on the West Coast where he was rocketed from starving artist to a member of the biggest band in the world.
Having achieved all his wildest dreams by age 25, but also witnessing firsthand the price of fame, Dave then spent his next 25 years carefully crafting his life exactly as he wanted it - with equal measures of music, family, and friends. He shares some really epic stories starring some of the biggest names of our time, and he tells some really touching stories starring his mom, his wife, and his children.
The Book Girls Say… There are countless musician and celebrity memoirs that we’ve enjoyed over the years (in fact, you’ll find many of them on our list of best audiobook memoirs), but we picked this one for the Lifetime of Reading challenge specifically because Dave Grohl’s truly tells stories about the phases of life and how they change you. Throughout this memoir, we see Dave first strive to become a musician, and then strive to be so much more, including a father who puts his kids ahead of his career.
You don’t have to be a fan of Nirvana or the Foo Fighters to enjoy this memoir! Definitely listen to the audiobook if you can - Dave reads it himself and there’s nothing better than hearing someone’s life story in their own voice.
If you’ve already read Dave’s memoir (or if the library waitlist is still months long), we also highly recommend Rob Lowe’s 2011 memoir, Stories I Only Tell My Friends. His memoir is similarly the story of a man who achieved massive fame, saw the dark side of that life, and then crafted a life that allowed him to have both a fulfilling career and a happy family life. The Kindle version of Lowe’s memoir is free with a Kindle Unlimited subscription, but we highly recommend the audiobook that he reads himself.
by Jennifer Weiner
Jo and Bethie, childhood through their 70s
Growing up in a picture-perfect house in Detroit in the 1950s, Jo and Bethie are Jewish sisters who each have a clearly defined role in their family. Jo is the bookish tomboy with a strong sense of fairness, and Bethie is the good girl who enjoys the power that comes from her beauty.
The sisters come of age in the 1960s against the backdrop of free love, Vietnam, Woodstock, and feminism. Good-girl Bethie becomes a wild child who is drawn to all things counterculture. Jo, on the other hand, follows the expected path and becomes a young wife living in Connecticut - no part of which is true to herself.
Through the decades, neither woman is leading the life she really wants. Jo sees the world changing, but she’s a witness rather than a participant. Bethie endures many traumas and struggles with how the world sees her versus how she sees herself.
It will take many more years for both sisters to finally become their true selves, and even longer for them to find their way back to one another.
The Book Girls Say… Jo and Bethie are the author's own take on Little Woman's sisters, Jo and Beth, and the character of Jo is also based loosely on the author’s own mother.
As the title implies, this book has a little of everything. From the fashion and design trends of the times to the biggest topics in American society, including race, religion, politics, and more. This novel also examines much more personal issues like the loss of a parent, sexual orientation, and body image.
Because it covers so much ground, some readers will love becoming a part of Jo and Bethie’s world, while others may feel like the 460-page book gets too detailed and goes on a bit too long in parts.
Heads Up: This book includes some scenes of molestation as well as consensual sex.
by C.W. Gortner
CoCo Chanel, late 30s through 80s
Few names are as synonymous with chic glamour as Coco Chanel. However, all your opinions of the woman who created the classic little black dress could change after reading this historical fiction account of her entire life.
From her humble beginnings as an orphan to her determination to keep her atelier afloat during WW2, this book details the decisions that lead to her lasting name recognition.
The Book Girls Say… This book is well-researched and largely biographical but told in an engaging novel form. Melissa was fascinated by Coco Chanel’s changing positions in life throughout this book, along with several other surprising aspects like her relationship with the German soldiers as they invaded Paris.
Oona Out of Order
by Margarita Montimor
Oona, teenage years through 50s
The night before Oona’s 19th birthday, on New Years’ Eve 1982, she’s struggling with a big decision. Should she go all-in on her commitment to her band and boyfriend, or follow through with a long-time plan to study economics in London with her best friend?
Before she can go down either path, she wakes up on New Year’s Day, in the year 2014. Instead of being 19, she’s suddenly 51. She continues to live her life out of order, traveling backward or forward each New Year, but never knowing what age she’ll be when she wakes up.
The Book Girls Say… This is an interesting pick for the Lifetime of Reading Challenge because we don’t see Oona’s life progress in chronological order. Rather than seeing Oona’s life story as she ages, we see snippets of Oona at different stages of life without yet knowing the full story of how she got there. Melissa really enjoyed this book, and highly recommends it in audiobook form.
Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen
by Jose Antonio Vargas
Jose Antonio Vargas, teens through 30s
When the author of this memoir was 16, he went to get his driver’s license and was shocked to learn that he was brought to the United States outside the legal channels. He came to the US from the Philippines at 12 and had no documentation from his home country.
Despite his rough start to life, Jose became a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. However, that journey came with many challenges, including the overwhelming feeling that he didn’t have a home. His memoir covers his first 25 years of highs and lows in America. If you’re interested in a first-hand look at what it’s really like to be brought to America as a child, this is a great option.
by Isabel Allende
Violeta, birth through 100 years old
This book is told in the form of a letter written by 100-year-old Violeta as she reflects back on her life and the tragedies she overcame. Violeta was born in 1920, as the world was trying to recover from World War I and just as the Spanish Flu began to take hold in South America. But that won’t be the only pandemic she encounters during her long life.
From the Great Depression to the fight for women’s rights and from drug cartels to lovers this fictional, but raw, book looks into all aspects of one lifetime.
by Elizabeth Letts
Maud, childhood through 70s
This historical fiction follows the life of Maud Baum, wife to the author of Wizard of Oz.She was raised by a suffragette mother in the late 1800s, attended college when it was rare for girls to be educated, and then met Frank. He was a big dreamer in a time when creativity was not praised as a career path.
The couple's life was fascinating, even before he wrote Wizard of Oz. Finding Dorothy switches between Maud's earlier years and her quest at age 77 to make sure the Wizard of Oz movie stayed true to the book. She becomes determined to protect the actress playing Dorothy, Judy Garland.
The Book Girls Say…This is a 5 star read whether or not you are a big fan of the Wizard of Oz, it's very much Maud's story and stands alone from Frank’s story.
The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell
by Robert Dugoni
Sam, childhood through middle-age
Born with ocular albinism, Sam Hill's red eyes cause him problems from the moment that he enrolled at Our Lady of Mercy. Labeled "Hell Boy," he is bullied by not only his classmates, but also by the nun who is the principal of the elementary school. Eventually, Sam finds the friend he desperately needs in Ernie Cantwell, the only African American boy in his class, and eventually also in a fiercely individual girl named Mickie.
Decades later, Sam is a respected ophthalmologist still moving through life with Ernie and Mickie by his side, but his world is about to be upturned when he's unexpectedly reunited with the biggest school-yard bully from his past.
The Book Girls Say... This is one of our all-time favorite reads! The writing feels effortless, but the complex character development will pull you in and stick with you long past the last page. We highly recommend the audiobook which is narrated by the author himself!
Both the Kindle and audiobook versions of this book are available free with a Kindle Unlimited membership as of 5/18/22.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐1/2
100% Would Recommend to a Friend
by Laird Hunt
Zorrie, childhood through senior years
In under 200 pages, author Laird Hunt covers the entire life of the main character Zorrie. It begins with Zorrie in a modest home before the death of her parents. After being orphaned a second time when her aunt passes away, Zorrie drifts through Depression-era Indiana.
Eventually, she finds home in the community of Hillisburg. As Zorrie ages, you’ll see many events of the 20th century through the eyes of a woman in a small midwestern town.
The Book Girls Say…Zorrie was a 2021 finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction. This is a poetic, character-driven book, so if you prefer more action and plot, it might not be the best choice.
Lady in Waiting
by Anne Glenconner
Anne, teens through 80s
Even the juiciest Hollywood tell-alls have nothing on this royal memoir from Anne Glenconner, who was a friend and official Lady in Waiting to Princess Margaret.
The book covers her full life to date, from teenage years through her late 80s. While Princess Margaret is involved in some of the stories, the book is not directly focused on the royal family. Instead, it's all about Anne's unbelievable life, which was marked by both incredible privilege and extreme tragedy that overlaps some of the major events of the 20th century, including the war on drugs and the AIDs epidemic.
The Book Girls Say... We highly recommend listening to this one as an audiobook because Anne Glenconner narrates it herself and her proper British voice adds magic to the unbelievable stories.
A word of warning... Don't listen with your kiddos around. Some of the stories go from innocent to risqué with no warning.
by Elin Hilderbrand
Mallory and Jake, 20s through 50s
In 1993, at age 23, Mallory inherits a beach cottage in Nantucket. She decides to embrace the unexpected gift and move to the island full-time. Shortly after, she hosts a bachelor party for her brother and meets his friend from college, Jake.
After things go wrong for other attendees, Mallory and Jake are left alone for the rest of the weekend. They have undeniable chemistry and after watching the classic movie, Same Time Next Year, they decide that they'll continue getting together one weekend every summer, no matter what.
As the title suggests, the book spans 28 years of these secret meetings, one chapter per year from 1993-2020. You'll keep the pages turning to find out how their lives change individually and together each year as Mallory and Jake go from college through careers and through love and loss. The chapters each start with a fun recap of what was happening in the world each year, and you'll be transported through time as their lives move forward.
The Book Girls Say... This was a 5 star read for both of us! Just keep the Kleenex ready for the ending.
Heads Up: This book includes infidelity, which some readers have told us is a deal-breaker for them.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐
94% Would Recommend to a Friend
The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat
by Edward Kelsey Moore
Odette, Clarice, and Barbara Jean, teens through 50s
Three friends - dubbed "The Supremes" by pals - have been meeting at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat diner in Plainview, Indiana since their high school days in the tumultuous 1960s.
For more than four decades, they've been by each other's side through life's up and downs. But now, in their mid-50s, the group will change their greatest challenges yet. From infidelity to illness, the only thing that can count on is each other.
The Book Girls Say…This book has been described as The Help meets Fried Green Tomatoes with a dash of Steel Magnolias.
The Happiest Man on Earth
by Eddie Jaku
Eddie, childhood through age 99
Despite witnessing the absolute worst of humanity during seven years in concentration camps, including Auschwitz, Eddie believes he is the happiest man on earth. He wrote this memoir as his 100th birthday approached and he reflected back on the entirety of his life.
In 208 pages, Eddie will make you feel like he’s your friend. Your heart will ache for him, but you’ll also be awed by his strength and courage. Most of all, you’ll be inspired to see the world in a more positive way, even in the midst of extreme trials.
Cutting for Stone
by Abraham Verghese
Marion, birth through middle-age
Marion and Shiva Stone are twin brothers born of a secret union between a beautiful Indian nun and a brash British surgeon at a mission hospital in Ethiopia. Unfortunately, their mother dies in childbirth and their father disappears, leaving the brothers orphaned.
It’s the early 1950s, and the twins are adopted by two other surgeons from the hospital and come of age in an Ethiopia on the brink of revolution. Ultimately, however, it's love rather than politics that comes between them.
After finishing med school, Marion flees to America to intern at an overcrowded and underfunded hospital in NYC. Eventually though, the past catches up with Marion and he must turn to the two men he trusts least - his father and his brother.
The Book Girls Say... This is an epic saga (nearly 600 pages of small font) and can feel slow at the start, but it's one worth investing time in! It received 5-star ratings across the board from Angela's in-person book club. A tip, though - keep your dictionary handy if you're a little rusty on your Latin or anatomy.
The author, Abraham Verghese, is a doctor and a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine. His medical expertise is apparent throughout the book. This makes this the perfect read for those who love hospital stories, but some readers may find the lengthy descriptions of surgical procedures a bit too drawn out.
The book list above is focused on books that follow a protagonist’s life across multiple decades. If you are instead looking specifically for intergenerational novels that follow several generations of the same family over an extended period, you’ll find many of those on our list of Novels that Span Decades from the 1880s to the 2010s.
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Friday 20th of May 2022
I loved 'The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell'!
Wednesday 25th of May 2022
@Jerri, OMG i laughed my butt off, the mother was great. I listened to audio and it was great.