A new book offers a hopeful look at later life. Written by Ellen Warner and published by Brandeis University Press, The Second Half: Forty Women Reveal Life After Fifty is a celebration of the strength and insight of women across the world. Fifteen years in the making, the book features Warner’s black-and-white photographic portraits of each participant — who range from a 53-year-old embroidery specialist in Riyadh to a 107-year-old retired cook in Antigua — along with a text about their lives as told to the author in interviews. The women’s individual stories are absolutely fascinating. But what makes this book really special is that the women also share what they’ve learned from their experiences, and how those lessons will shape the rest of their lives.
Warner encountered the women through personal referrals or simply by chance on her travels. Interviewees include a desert nomad, a former movie star, a concentration camp survivor, and a pub owner, among many others.
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Regardless of these women’s backgrounds, we learn that each one has faced enormous odds including war, illness, discrimination, and divorce. Warner, who has worked as a photojournalist since 1969, captures her subjects’ candid stories sensitively and with verve. Her book is a compelling testament to human perseverance in the face of hardship, but also to life’s enduring joys.
Crucially, the women don’t just talk about their past; they also tell us how and who they are today, and what they care about now. Despite their diverse backgrounds, certain themes emerge from the interviews, like the importance of family and the necessity of being true to oneself. Still, there is no single universal message to be gleaned here. Rather, readers will likely connect to a variety of women as they discuss the questions they asked, the paths they took, and the challenges they overcame in their first 50 years of life.
However, there are some issues. In the book’s introduction, Erica Jong writes “We need to celebrate women not for wrinkles but laugh lines,” and insists that “Experience is as beautiful as youth.” This emphasis on physical appearance feels dated and irrelevant when paired with the women’s frank and moving life stories. Also, Warner never claims to present a full or even view of women, but I would have appreciated more stories by queer and Latin American participants.
The Second Half began in 2003 when Warner found herself drawn to a French publisher who had just turned 70. While she was photographing the woman, Warner asked her what it felt to be her age. “I found myself listening attentively,” Warner writes in her introduction. “This is what I want to know,” she continues, “what does it feel like to be seventy, eighty, or one hundred years old?”
It’s what we want to know, too. Thankfully, Warner’s book gives us some answers.