Some might call it boring. “It’s just two old people talking in the dark,” as one character says.
I call Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf a quiet book that sneaks up on you with its loveliness.
Two lonely people in their seventies—Addie and Louis—(both widowed) decide to sleep together at night. Addie clarifies her intentions to Louis, her neighbour down the street in their small Colorado town:
No, not sex. I’m not looking at it that way. I think I’ve lost any sexual impulse a long time ago. I’m talking about getting through the night. And lying warm in bed, companionably. Lying down in bed together and you staying the night. The nights are the worst. Don’t you think?
As you read it, you realize it’s about a lot more than two old people talking in the dark. It’s about ordinary, flawed people reflecting on the past and taking a risk to make the most of the present.
Addie and Louis are two characters who make me look forward to growing old. They’ve lived long enough to stop caring what other people will think or say about them, but they each have a child and live in a town who doesn’t share their way of looking at things, which brings tension into their story.
Their simple, routine lives are attractive. They work in their gardens, drive elderly neighbours to the grocery store, go on outings occasionally. Haruf doesn’t cut these ordinary elements out of his fiction. For example, one chapter starts:
The next day he worked in the yard in the morning and mowed the lawn and ate lunch and took a short nap and then went down to the bakery and drank coffee with a group of men he met with every other week.
The way the author tells the story is cinematic, a movie camera following the characters around their small town, paying close attention to the little things brought to life with such love. Waiting at a stoplight. Cooking sloppy joes over a camp stove. Walking a dog. Similar to a scene in the film Lady Bird where a character talks about love as paying attention; paying attention as love.
Haruf’s style of prose mimics his subject matter. The writing is poetic in its spareness. Rhythmic in its brevity. There are no quotation marks around the dialogue, and it would look cumbersome if there were because so much of the novel is dialogue and, for the most part, it’s clear who’s speaking when.
The only other book I could compare it it to is Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, a similarly brief yet eloquent portrait of two people exploring the landscape of marriage (with a more devastating tone though).
Our Souls at Night was the author’s last book before he died in 2014 at 71, a similar age to his characters. He based it on his and his wife’s story, two people who found each other later in life. Knowing this makes the reading experience that much more tender. What a gift to leave the world.
In a literary market where the protagonists are typically young, larger than life, and the plot full of action and surprise, this novel landed in my lap like a letter from another world. It was refreshing to know a book like this could be published, and with acclaim! And not just published, but deemed interesting enough to make into a movie, which I think I will watch tonight.