A Cure for Loneliness

Our Souls at Night     Kent Haruf     (2015)

Right in the first chapter of Our Souls at Night we know the premise: One evening in May, elderly widow Addie Moore asks elderly widower Louis Waters if he would come to her house occasionally and spend the night, not for sex but for conversation and companionship. Addie and Louis are neighbors in the fictional small town of Holt, Colorado, and both are intensely lonely. She has a son, and he has a daughter, but these adult children live hours away.

Addie and Louis embark on their conversational adventure, scandalizing the townsfolk but finding joy in each other’s company. Through their dialogue, which forms the core of this book, we learn about their family histories, their disappointments, their secret pleasures. When Addie’s son and daughter-in-law have marital and business troubles, their young son comes to stay with Addie for the summer. Addie and Louis are able to cheer up this forlorn grandchild with unpretentious entertainments, but, alas, the magic of their summer together doesn’t last.

All you punctuation geeks out there should be aware that author Kent Haruf uses no quotation marks in his writing. This practice causes reader confusion once in a while, but I think I understand Haruf’s motives. The text as it appears on the page is exceedingly spare and unadorned, just as the narrative is simple and stripped down. We get the essence of the story, the bare essentials, which nevertheless say plenty about issues like friendship, trust, love, and family duty. Every single word of Our Souls at Night seems carefully chosen to enhance the whole book.

Haruf depicts small-town America deftly in this novel. (At 179 pages, I’d say that it’s more of a novella.) He doesn’t stereotype the characters or sentimentalize their relationships. Rather, he creates complex, fallible people trying to make sense of their lot in life. Addie and Louis carve out their own version of happiness in spite of setbacks; readers can tuck their story away as a tutorial in how to cope with old age and the inevitability of mortality.

This understated jewel of a book is one you should not miss.

Sadly, Kent Haruf died in 2014, shortly after completing Our Souls at Night. His previous novels (all set in Holt, Colorado) include a loose trilogy (Plainsong, Eventide, and Benediction), Where You Once Belonged, and The Tie that Binds, plus the photobook West of Last Chance (with photographer Peter Brown).