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Bittersweet: How sorrow and longing make us whole by Susan Cain


Susan Cain is the champion of those who would tick, ‘My batteries feel more recharged when I spend time alone than when I socialise’ on a Myers-Briggs. Her 2012 bestselling book, Quiet, argued that our Western society undervalues introverts: that their inherent characteristics - being shy, sensitive, serious - are seen as negative in a world that idealises extroverts; and yet in reality those overlooked qualities actually serve us well and can be quite powerful in their own way.


Bittersweet follows a similar train of thought: that we live in a culture of normative sunshine, a society that censures sorrow, and yet those who gravitate to a more melancholic outlook, those who harbour a yearning, a longing, are following a path to belonging “that our poets and philosophers have been trying to tell us [about] for centuries.” Think Buddhism’s First Noble Truth - the notion of embracing suffering; Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet; or, more recently, the Cellist of Sarajevo.


Compelled to write this book by the thought of how uplifted she feels while listening to the melancholic music of Leonard Cohen, Cain defines bittersweet as “a tendency to state of longing, poignancy, and sorrow: an acute awareness of passing time; and a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world. The bittersweet is also about the recognition that light and dark, birth and death - bitter and sweet - are forever paired”. Bittersweet, she argues, underpins creativity, and that when we embrace the pain and beauty that is part and parcel of life, we transcend it, and catch a glimpse of that perfect and beautiful world we all long for.


The book is a curious hybrid of research, ruminations and memoir as Cain explores why sadness has survived evolutionary processes, how we survive lost love, whether we inherit the pain of our ancestors and ultimately, how we can transform bittersweet into a beneficent force.


Traversing popular culture, philosophy, religion, psychology and neuroscience, the result is a beautiful, empowering meditation on poignancy that lingers in the mind long after reading. Brené Brown loved it - and that may be all the endorsement you need.


Reviewer: Stacey Anyan

Penguin Random House