Our Souls at Night

harufThe Short Version: When Addie Moore, an elderly widow, stops by to see her neighbor and acquaintance Louis Waters, he doesn’t expect that she’ll ask him to come spend the night with her – just to sleep next to her. So begins an unexpected, beautiful look at a late-in-life courtship.

The Review: Some novels are so slight, so simple of focus, that you might overlook them or go in with the predisposition of “eh, but why?”  I’ll freely admit that sense of skepticism as I picked up Kent Haruf’s final novel. I was surprised that it made it into the Tournament of Books, seeing as I firmly believed there were books “more worthy” that had lost out on a slot – and I was just as surprised to find that I really adored this slip of a story.

Our two main characters, Louis and Addie, are older – Addie is, I believe, in her early 70s and Louis a little older than that. They’ve both lost their spouses some time ago, they’re living alone in a small town, and both a little lonely. Not overwhelmingly lonely – they still have their various friends and descendants – but a little lonely is sometimes the hardest kind of lonely to deal with. And so when the novel opens with Addie’s proposition to Louis, I found myself immediately rooting for them and this odd, unorthodox (is it, though?) development.

The thing that most surprised me is that the supporting characters in the novel don’t take all that kindly to this new development. Admittedly, it is a little out of the ordinary and gossip will be what it will be – they’re not having sex, just sharing a bed for comfort and companionship, at least at first – but it’s only so unexpected because of their ages. Addie’s son, the most unlikeable person in the book, talks about the two of them in the way you’d think they would be talking about somebody his age – and this opened up something in my mind, a realization if you will. Culturally, we’re in a place where we’re increasingly okay with the idea of young people dating a lot, sleeping around, accepting that sex and companionship can be just about fun as opposed to anything more noble. This is a magnificent development. And even in mid-life, tides are turning so that divorce is less stigmatized and remarriage understandable under any circumstances. But there is a weird mental block around the older segment of the population, I think – we don’t want to imagine that they’re… capable? That they still have sexual or even more broadly physical desires?

It just brushes up against yet another of our obnoxiously engrained Puritan-derived morals in this country – but, as a bulwark to further engraining, Haruf’s novel immediately makes us associate with Louis and Addie, even if we’re 50+ years younger. I can’t see how you could read this novel and not think that it would be nice to have companionship in our later years, even if the love of your life isn’t there with you. This is not an invalidation of the love that came before, not a repudiation of the life you had… it’s simply a means of going a little less quietly into the eventual good night.

But okay, how about the story itself? I was honestly reminded of Labor Day, really: there are moments of awkwardness that bloom into something more beautiful, there are conversations of simplicity that mean so much more than they appear to, there are small-time American pastimes imbued with wonderful romantic resonance. Maynard’s novel is far more capital-R Romance than Haruf’s, but Haruf doesn’t shy away from some moments that are far more hot and heavy than you might expect. But it’s the couple deciding to go out to lunch in town to flaunt their companionship in front of the gossiping townsfolk, the couple taking Addie’s grandson and their octogenarian neighbor to a softball game, even just the quiet conversation at night where the two learn about each other… they swell my heart, these moments. They make me happy, not just to have been told to read this book but, honestly, to be alive.

Louis and Addie, I should take a moment to mention, are wonderful characters – Addie especially. From the minute she walked onto the page, I could only see Lois Smith, the tremendous New York-based actress. I’ve seen her in a great many stage performances and I hope that, if someone wants to make a movie of Our Souls at Night (and by god they should), they cast her as Addie. She’d be a perfect fit for her tone, a sort of humorous near-sharpness – a tone that, in the novel, fits quite nicely with Louis’ gentle and unassuming seriousness. It’s great fun to see Louis’ surprise at all of their many developments, but the way that he takes it with a sort of internalized grin.

Also, side note: I’ve never read any of Haruf’s other novels but apparently they’re all set in this same small town of Holt, Colorado. And he passed away late last year, this book arriving posthumously. I’m not sure if he ever engaged in such things earlier on, but he drops in a delightful meta nod in one chapter, where Addie mentions theatrical adaptations of a trilogy of novels about the town and she and Louis ponder whether or not the stories from those novels were true (spoiler: they don’t think so). I was delighted by Haruf’s impish sense of humor, there. I was, admittedly, less delighted – although less less-delighted than I’ve ever been; I’m getting better – at the lack of quotation marks. I should say, I increasingly believe this to be an affectation of necessity, based on certain types of typewriters used to write the early drafts of stories, as opposed to some sort of writerly tick (makes it go down for me easier, anyway). But these tiny moments that, for one reason or another, pulled me out of the story are truly negligible. Haruf does not shoot for masterpiece-status here – but in delivering a quiet, small moment at an unexpected time, he does deliver a kind of perfection.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5. On the one hand, there’s nothing truly extraordinary about this novel. In fact, I think it’d be easy to say that Haruf takes comfort, as a storyteller, in the plain-old-ordinary. But he so excels at delivering ordinary moments – and his depiction of love (or at least a kind of love) coming unexpectedly and unorthodoxly late in life is a story we don’t see that often. Perhaps because we feel strange about surviving parents shacking up with someone new, or because we don’t want to think about the elderly as having feelings in the same way that the younger generations do. But they were young once too. And they are still just as human as anybody else. Leave it to a novelist to show the humanity of it all and to deliver a mind-opening realization in the most unassuming of guises.

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3 comments

  1. When I was an undergrad, I swear every book assigned to me was missing my beloved quote marks. People said things like it was stylistic of the time period, or normal for a certain country, or done away with to avoid stopping the reader’s eye (which, surprise, I like it when my eyes get cues about what I should be thinking). But, I’ve gotten used to it. I did so by reading the Barrytown trilogy by Roddy Doyle, an Irish author who is riotously funny, but mostly creates stories through dialogue, so the quote marks really DO slow you down and would look messy on the page. Instead, he starts dialogue with a dash. It helped.

    I’ve read a number of reviews about this book now. It’s interesting that people are surprised that the elderly get physically lonely. In a gerontology class I took, I learned that when the elderly were asked if they were still physically intimate, they would get all giggly and blush. By physically intimate, they reported hugging, rubbing, and bathing, among other things, but typically it wasn’t sex (though that’s not to say the elderly are not getting it on).

  2. Pingback: Roundup: February 2017 | Raging Biblio-holism

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