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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Review of "Our Souls at Night" by Kent Haruf

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4 Stars

Why is it I have not read any other novels by this writer?!  This was a delightful read. 

Addie Moore and Louis Waters are both widowed septuagenarians, neighbours in Holt, Colorado.  One day, Addie approaches Louis with a proposal:  “I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me.  And talk.”  Louis agrees; he too misses the companionship and comfort of a partner.  As nights pass, the two get to know each other by speaking of their lives:  meeting their spouses, the joys and sorrows of their marriages, hopes and dreams, successes and failures in their lives.  All is well until people start to talk and Louis’s daughter and Addie’s son object to the arrangement. 

This short novel takes ordinary events and makes them seem extraordinary.  The two agree “to live simply and pay attention to what’s happening each day.”  They take pleasure in the little things; Addie says, “I love this physical life with you.  And the air and the country.  The backyard, the gravel in the back alley.  The grass.  The cool nights.  Lying in bed talking with you in the dark.”  The book suggests that happiness can be found when one focuses on what really matters, and what really matters is often the simple things in life.

The novel also examines how people often sacrifice happiness for family.  Louis speaks of wanting to be a poet but “I started teaching and [my daughter] came along and I got busy.  I went to work in the summers painting houses.  We needed the money.  Or at least I thought we did.”  Now Gene, Addie’s son, wants his mother to stop seeing Louis; he even tells Louis, “I want you to stay away from my mother.  To leave my son alone.  And forget about my mother’s money.”  And Holly, Louis’s daughter, says the relationship “just seems embarrassing.”  Must Addie stop seeing Louis so Gene will be happy and she can see her grandson?  Allie says she doesn’t care about what people will say, “I made up my mind I’m not going to pay attention to what people think” and Louis agrees, “I don’t give a damn.”  But opinion of family matters more than that of townspeople.

The style of this book is part of its charm.  Simple words and simple sentences are used throughout, yet that simple, spare prose creates a complex story.  The words chosen are perfect.  For example, the second sentence of the novel is “It was an evening in May just before full dark.”  That sentence doesn’t just establish setting; it suggests the subject of the novel – new love in the twilight years. 

There is not a lot of explanation.  Most scenes are graceful vignettes, and one is followed by another without elaboration.  There is no direct characterization; we learn everything about the characters from their words and actions, not from what the narrator tells us.  For example, we learn so much about Louis from the way he interacts with Jamie, Addie’s grandson.

This is a short novella telling a tender tale.   It is written in a delicate, eloquent style, but its simplicity does not mean that the book is facile.  I will definitely be checking out Haruf’s other books, especially the Plainsong series.