Have you ever loved a character so much that you just want to watch their entire lives unfold? I certainly have, and luckily for us, some books deliver on that! While the time span of a story tends to be more constricted to weeks or months rather than years or decades, the sky is the limit for what authors can pull off. I think it takes a lot of talent for a writer to build fascinating characters that you want to spend that much time with, and then make that character growth satisfying over years or decades. Pacing can also be a tricky balance of knowing when to pull out for a more panoramic view and when to zoom in close on important moments! But when it’s done well…well, it usually leaves me sobbing or emotionally wrung out. There’s just something so beautiful about following a beloved character through so many seasons of life.
Although there are many books that pull this off, I thought I’d highlight some more recent favorites that follow particular characters (rather than generations of a family) over a long period of time. These stories range in time period and genre, although most tend to fall into the historical fiction category. Almost all are tearjerkers, so make sure you have some tissues handy!
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Evelyn Hugo is a legendary screen actress, and her personal life is almost as fascinating as her professional career. Now in her 80s, she’s agreeing to a rare interview, but she bestows this honor onto an unknown young journalist named Monique. Once Monique arrives at Evelyn’s apartment, she makes her an offer she can’t refuse: Write Evelyn’s authorized biography, and Evelyn will reveal everything, from her most personal relationships to her darkest secrets. Monique agrees, but all the while she can’t help but wonder…why her?
You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins
The women of the Das family are at the center of this novel, which spans from the 1970s to the early 2000s. Ranee and her daughters, Tara and Sonia, spend years moving around abroad for her husband’s work, from Ghana to London and finally to New York, where they settle down. Ranee isn’t happy about this, but Tara and Sonia seem to thrive in New York, and both find themselves on exciting but different paths until a horrible tragedy strikes. Two decades later, their daughters struggle to find meaning and a sense of place in the only home they’ve known as they reckon with family legacy.
When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill
Told in a memoir style, this novel is about Alex and her upbringing, and how her life was forever changed the day hundreds of thousands of women spontaneously turned into dragons and disappeared. Her mother stayed while her aunt transformed, and her little cousin became her little sister. Alex grew up knowing it was forbidden to speak of the dragoning, but the older she gets, the more impossible it is to ignore the past, especially in the face of an uncertain future.
Cantoras by Carolina de Robertis
This story follows five young women who connect in Uruguay in the late 1970s. They’re living under a dictatorship, but they all have something in common: They love other women. A week-long getaway to a small town on the coast offers an opportunity to feel fully themselves, and they purchase a small shack that they jointly own. It becomes their refuge and retreat over the next four decades as their relationships grow, shift, and change, and as they face new love and unspeakable loss. But all along, their friendships hold steadfast.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Beginning in Korea in the early 1900s, this novel follows Sunja, a young woman who falls for a charming man who promises her a life beyond her small fishing village. But when he leaves her pregnant and she discovers he is married, she instead marries a kind Korean missionary who is headed to Japan. Once in Japan, Sunja raises her small family but faces oppression and discrimination that culminates in terrible danger during WWII. After the war, she is able to find security for her family and even prosperity as her children and grandchildren put down roots…but at what personal cost?
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
Beginning in 1969 New York City, this novel follows the four Gold siblings — Simon, Klara, Daniel, and Varya — who one day seek their fortunes at a fortuneteller, and she tells them each the day that they will die. What she reveals to them has a direct impact on their lives as they each seek to fulfill or avoid their fates, spread out across the world, for the next forty-odd years.
Matrix by Lauren Groff
Marie de France is just a teenager when she’s cast out of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court and sent to England, where she is supposed to serve out her days as the prioress of a nearly forgotten abbey. While those who exile her expect Marie’s end to come quickly, she instead finds her purpose in her life at the nunnery and in helping her sisters survive. Over the course of the following years, she becomes determined to lead them to a brighter future even as the world around them changes at an unforgiving pace.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Winding its way from the Deep South to California and spanning nearly four decades, this novel tells the story of the identical Vignes twins and how they run away from home at 16, only to face very different paths. One twin resettles in her hometown and raises a daughter as a single mother while the other makes a new life for herself in California with a husband and daughter, passing as white. When their daughters discover the truth, they must face decades of complicated history.
A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende
In the chaos and heartbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Roser, a young pregnant widow, and Victor, a doctor, find themselves in a marriage of convenience as they escape Spain and set sail for Chile. Living in exile is not something either of them want, and they struggle to start over in a new land as Europe is torn apart by seemingly endless war. But as the years pass, they are also forced to reconcile their definition of home with the reality of their new lives in Chile.
Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht
Vera Kelly is a closeted and confused young woman, brought up by a distant mother in the 1950s. By the 1960s, she’s a jaded asset for the CIA, spying in Buenos Aires and passing her days transcribing overheard conversations and collecting information. When the CIA abruptly withdraws from the country, she is left without an extraction…and in possession of some valuable information. This is a fascinating, personal account of how one woman resisted the bonds of patriarchy to make her own way, and the high price she must pay for this hard-win freedom. Bonus: If you enjoy this book, there are two excellent sequels that span the late 1960s/early 1970s.
Want more epic books that cover a large swathe of time? Check out our round up of ten books that place over a really long span of time — not all of these follow the same characters, but many do!