“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.