Addie and Louis were neighbors for many years. They knew each other’s spouses and watched each other’s children grow up and go away. They had observed each other for decades, at a distance. And now they were on their own, that is, until Addie asks Louis if he would come to her house at night and keep her company in bed. She has trouble sleeping, she tells Louis, “But I think I could sleep again if there were someone else in bed with me. Someone nice. The closeness of that. Talking in the night, in the dark.”
And so begins the quiet and loving relationship between the two main characters in this novel by Kent Haruf. Although it begins in the bedroom, the friendship that comes from their late-night talks moves into the kitchen and the neighborhood and beyond. It becomes a late-in-life love affair.
As I describe the plot, I realize it sounds like some sort of cliche about second chances and finding passion and meaning in old age. But Haruf’s treatment of Addie and Louis isn’t like that at all. It’s too quiet and subdued for that. It’s not that there isn’t passion between them—there is!—but the book focuses on simple day-to-day routines and pleasures. A sandwich and chips for lunch. Buying a softball mitt for a grandson. Making sloppy joes over a campfire. Louis says, “I just want to live simply and pay attention to what’s happening every day. And come sleep with you at night.” And that’s what the book is about—living simply and paying attention and being together at night.
For most of the book, there’s hardly any conflict. Neighbors make rude remarks, but Addie makes it clear that she doesn’t care, and Louis decides she’s right. Louis and Addie spend time talking about past troubles and how they got through them, and Addie worries about her son’s marriage, which appears to be crumbling, causing Addie to take in her grandson, Jamie, over the summer. Addie and Louis worry about him, and Louis makes an effort to fill his days with happy pleasures, like watching baby mice and watering plants. It’s lovely.
I’d like to say the loveliness lasts forever, but it doesn’t. The book has to end. The distressing truth is that sometimes, no matter how much we want to do our own thing, other people get in the way. They may be wrong, but it’s not always possible to do much about it without making sacrifices we aren’t prepared to make. For most of their lives, Addie and Louis had to make compromises and follow paths that weren’t quite what they wanted. They did find some happiness along the way, perhaps by focusing on the simple joys. The only thing to do is to appreciate what happiness we can find. “For as long as we can. For as long as it lasts.”