Monthly Archives: March 2023

An unusual proposal

Book cover of Our Souls at Night shows the front of a house at night with the porch light on.

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Our Souls at Night begins with Addie Moore paying a visit to her neighbor Louis and making an unusual proposal to him. Both around 70 and widowed, they’ve lived their whole lives in Holt, a fictional small Colorado town, and know a lot of the same people, but were never very close with each other. Still, Addie thinks Louis is a decent guy and asks if he’d like to start sleeping with her, literally–not having sex, but staying together for the companionship. From there, this compact novel sketches their growing relationship and the reactions of those around them, both friends and family. When Addie’s grandson arrives to stay with her, they form a sort of sweet makeshift family along with the elderly woman who lives in the house between them. But of course, this can’t last forever.

Kent Haruf was a Colorado author who died in 2014, and Our Souls at Night was his last novel. It’s written in a sparse style, with little description and much explained through dialogue. As a result, it moves along fairly quickly but gives you little access to its characters’ internal lives beyond what they choose to tell each other. The interactions between Addie and her son near the end of the novel, for example, as he turns the screws on her relationship with Louis are a somewhat frustrating puzzle. His attitude struck me as very flat and sitcom-y, with Addie’s thoughts on raising such a selfish, narrow-minded person left unexplored. Louis’s thoughts about it are glossed over as well. It functions mostly as a plot device to throw an obstacle in the way of their relationship, but little more.

In the end, this was an enjoyable but somewhat slight read. The novel has little of the depth of say, Sinclair Lewis‘s best depictions of small-town life in America. This was the first book I’ve read by Haruf, and I suspect that if you’re already a fan of his, it has enough charm that you’ll love it. I’m curious to try Plainsong, his most popular novel. This may not be the best of his books to start with.

A ripping yarn from Dickens

Victorian drawing of the cluttered old curiosity shop.

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I like to settle down with a novel by Charles Dickens every couple of years. I find his sprawling, fantastic tales a comfort, particularly when life is unsettled. His villains are awful, his heroes virtuous, and his complicated plots fun to unravel. You also get a vivid sense of life at another time, however cartoonish he can sometimes make it.

The Old Curiosity Shop has largely been forgotten now, but it was hugely popular when it was first published in Dickens’ weekly serial, Master Humphrey’s Clock, from 1840 to 1841. The book begins with a first person narrator describing how he meets a lost girl, Nell Trent, as he walks the streets at night. He brings her back to the old curiosity shop in which she, an orphan, lives with her doting but daffy grandfather. For two more chapters, he learns more about this curious couple before abruptly saying, “And now that I have carried this history so far in my own character and introduced these personages to the reader, I shall for the convenience of the narrative detach myself from its further course, and leave those who have prominent and necessary parts in it to speak and act for themselves.”

From here on, the novel is told in the third person, floating freely between different characters. The primary story concerns Nell and her grandfather’s flight from London through areas that vary from darkly industrial to pastoral. Christopher Nubbles (“Kit”), who is Nell’s loyal servant, has his own troubles back in London as he worries over Nell’s fate. Both their hardships are orchestrated by the maliciously evil Daniel Quip, who is a somewhat painful caricature to the modern eye. The most interesting character in the book is probably Dick Swiveller, a friend of Nell’s older brother, who undergoes a transformation over the course of the novel to become an unlikely hero.

Along the way, there are numerous minor characters, such as Quilp’s grovelling attorney and his hard-hearted sister, along with their servant, who plays a key role in unraveling their nefarious plans. Nell and her grandfather run into a diverse cast that includes industrial workers, puppeteers, professional gamblers, the owner of a wax museum, and a compassionate schoolmaster who tries to rescue them.

This is a fairly early Dickens book that lacks some of the depth of his later novels, but he interweaves the numerous story lines deftly and keeps the plots chugging along like a network of well-oiled trains. The underside of capitalism and industrialization are vividly exposed, as is the maltreatment of children in England at the time.

The novel tends to be a little too sentimental, even for my romantic tastes, with Nell and Kit laughably innocent and virtuous and Quilp stunningly malicious, to the extent that he regularly beats the figurehead of an old ship he’s salvaged with a poker because he thinks it looks like Kit. While I wouldn’t say this is one of Dicken’s best novels, it’s fast and easy to read and, ultimately, a fun and satisfying yarn.