Book Review: Bittersweet

How can something be both beautiful and sad at the same time? That’s the question Susan Cain sets out to explore in her newest book, Bittersweet. Her fans will remember Quiet, her study of introverts and their contributions to a noisy, extraverted society like ours. Just as the first book felt counter-cultural, so this one praises “negative” emotions like sadness and grief in the face of a relentlessly cheery society. Our longing, she says, the place where we care desperately, points in the direction of the sacred. It is the “beating heart of the world’s religions.” This yearning for a more perfect, beautiful world can be the source of creativity and compassion. In the state of exile from Home, our broken hearts help connect us.

Cain’s finest example comes in the Prelude: the cellist of Sarajevo. Vedran Smailovic, lead cellist of the Sarajevo opera, played Albinoni’s “Adagio in G Minor” in war ruins. Dressed in formal white shirt and black tails, he sat in the rubble and played this haunting melody for 22 days in a row, despite sniper fire, for 22 people killed by a mortar shell as they line up for bread. (To hear this infinitely sad music, go to The rubble reminds us of Ukraine. The cellist’s rhetorical question could apply there too: “you ask am I crazy for playing the cello in a war zone. Why don’t you ask THEM if they’re crazy for shelling Sarajevo?”

We can sense longing transformed into beauty in the music of Leonard Cohen or the writing of C.S. Lewis, who described a “joyous ache,” a search for “the place where all the beauty came from.” “God is the sigh in the soul,” said Meister Eckhart. Somehow, living in a flawed world, we sense a place of peace and wholeness, always beyond our reach. The pain of not achieving it permanently can be transformed into beauty; darkness can become light through artistic expression or compassion.

I felt a strong stab of this “joy laced with sorrow” at a recent birthday celebration. My six grandchildren were exuberant as they rushed into my room that morning. Carrying balloons, streamers, gifts and hand-made cards, they sang “Happy Birthday” and tumbled into bed for abundant hugs and kisses. Beneath joyful tears, I also thought: they will never be these ages (6-10) again. Sooner or later, we’ll return to routine. And I can’t imagine this clear innocence in 5 years, when they start becoming teenagers. Perhaps having limited expiration dates sharpens the edges, so humans better notice the miraculous in the everyday. “Poignancy is the richest feeling humans experience, one that gives meaning to life—and it happens when you feel happy and sad at the same time.”

Most of the book is gripping, but it sags in the middle, where Cain becomes extensively autobiographical about her relationship with her mother, and repeats much of what’s been written elsewhere. By now we’re aware of social codes that make us say everything is fine, and smile no matter what is unraveling.  The pressure on students to achieve perfection and never admit failure has been well documented. Brene Brown has published fine work on vulnerability, and many are already aware of the “tyranny of positivity.” Most of us know the power of journaling. It’s tempting to yawn when Cain reviews Sharon Salzberg’s well-known story and breathlessly discovers metta, the practice of loving-kindness which some readers have done for 30 years. The ultimate question on which the book ends, “What are you longing for?” echoes St. Ignatius’ probing our deep desires.   

Nonetheless, Bittersweet is well worth a read, and may name elusive feelings. It certainly clarifies our discontent with “normative sunshine,” and our mysterious yearning which is ultimately for the divine.

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