Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf

“I just want to live simply and pay attention to what’s happening each day.”

These words, spoken by Louis Rivers in Kent Haruf’s final novel, could be the book’s epigraph. Although it starts with kind of a wild premise (like, romance-novel fake-engagement level of wild) this is a quiet book that pays attention to daily life. On the surface nothing much happens, and yet everything that matters happens. Our Souls at Night is one of the most moving books I’ve read in ages. I can’t really explain how such a short, simple book achieved such profound effects.

That opening wild premise could be played for big drama, but it isn’t. Addie Moore has a proposition for her neighbor, Louis: will he come over and sleep with her? Just sleep. They’re both widowed and in their 70s, and she wants someone to lie beside and talk to in the dark. I loved the quiet matter-of-factness with which Haruf narrates this, and with which these two lonely people go about forging their connection, awkward at first but increasingly intimate and tender. Addie’s act changes everything, but it’s also woven into the fabric of their whole lives, as the in medias res syntax of the first sentence signals:

And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters.

Over a fairly idyllic summer, Addie and Louis grow closer. Her son separates from his wife and her grandson Jamie comes to stay. They get a dog, take him camping. Louis teaches Jamie to play catch. It’s tempting to read this as Addie and Louis’ chance to fix the mistakes of their pasts, the hurts they received and inflicted in their marriages and child-rearing, and which they tell each other about in the watches of the night. And I think it’s true that they have learned from the past and do better now. But that doesn’t erase the past, or repair their relationships with their children, who aren’t happy with what Addie and Louis are up to.

The ending of the book is bittersweet, perhaps predictably. I thought a lot, reading Our Souls at Night, about online book discussions. Because in some ways, the novel challenges a lot of stereotypes I see there: it’s a book by a man in which love and relationships, of all kinds, are central to the story and to the character’s lives. But it’s also a work of literary fiction which doesn’t have a happy ending. I don’t think anything in Haruf’s book suggests this ending is better or more realistic or more important than a happier one. But he did choose to tell a story in which characters have to make hard sacrifices, and I understand the complaint that this is always seen as the more serious, literary choice. But I want these kinds of stories, too, so I didn’t find the ending disappointing, except that Addie and Louis deserved better from those around them.

In some ways, I think this book is “about” the unfairness of that sacrifice, and the fact that it happens in part because we too often deny elderly people respect, dignity, and agency. Addie and Louis need each other because they need to tell the stories of their pasts, to understand where they’ve been, and because they want company and new life exeriences even as they age. They start the book with fairly empty, lonely lives, and the plotless quality of the book in part reflect their need to find purpose and meaning after retirement and widowhood. Quiet as the book is, there’s a kind of anger and energy underlying Haruf’s depiction of their desire for meaning, for people to care about, for a life that still includes new things, and the way younger people dismiss or dislike that desire, see it as inappropriate in old age.

Haruf wrote Our Souls at Night when he knew he was dying, and he decided not to “just sit around waiting” for the end. That desire to live a meaningful life through a whole life pervades the book. I read this book in an afternoon, but it will stay with me for a long time.

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11 Responses to Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf

  1. Rohan says:

    That’s a lovely review, and the book sounds wonderful. You are the second person to rave about a Kent Haruf novel to me in recent weeks – have you also read Plainsong, which is the other one?

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      This is the first book of his I have read, but I don’t think it will be the last. It had been on my radar for a while and the Tournament of Books pushed it up on my list. And then I found it on the shelf at the library.

      One thing I really liked, and think you would too, is that it made me reflect on a lot of ethical questions/big life issues (marriage, parenthood, aging, loneliness) without being at all heavy-handed or directing you either through narration (no Eliot-style reflections) or even, often, the characters’ internal monologues. He just shows you events, or the characters tell stories.

      I read something the other day about the way African fiction gets promoted and discussed, with a focus on themes and lessons vs literary qualities. And that made me think about how much wisdom I found in the book, and how Haruf didn’t dispense it overtly.

  2. Jorrie Spencer says:

    I agree, what a lovely review. I enjoyed reading it. Though I’m not quite sure I’m drawn to read the book—though absolutely agree there should be all kinds of stories.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      This is just one of those books for which I felt like I was the exact right reader at the right time. I could see people finding it boring and depressing but I loved it.

      The question of how some books are valued more than others, and why, has been on my mind lately (again) because of various Twitter conversations I observed. One thing I appreciated about Our Souls at Night is that it was totally unpretentious. It doesn’t have the feel of a book staking a claim to being Literature Full of Deep Meaning. It just is.

  3. Ooh, I have this on hold, so I’m not reading your review but looks like you enjoyed it so that makes me look forward to it even more!

  4. KeiraSoleore says:

    This book sounds so good. I’ll see if our library has it. It’s sometimes the quiet ones that dig in deep.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      It made a lot of best of lists so it’s a safe bet it will be at the library. And yes, it was exactly that kind of lovely quiet book that has far more going on than first appears.

  5. Sunita says:

    I’ve been wanting to read a book by Haruf since Plainsong. I don’t know why I haven’t yet. I really enjoyed the ToB discussion of this novel, and your post makes me want to read it even more. One of the unexpected experiences of aging has been the balance between remembering the past and living in the present. Watching the generation ahead of me, I can see people at both extremes and in the middle of the spectrum, and I often wonder what makes a person emphasize one over the other. I hope I stay living in the present, but I don’t to completely let go of the past, and these impulses are in tension with each other.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I am reaching an age, and certainly seeing my parents reach an age, where these kinds of questions really speak to me.

      I found myself wondering whether I would teach this book, and thinking that my students are just not the right audience for it, in part because of their age and in part because it is so subtle in its methods.

  6. Janine Ballard says:

    This sounds lovely, but maybe too dark for me.I remember when Plainsong came out. A lot of my friends read it and thought it was sublime.

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