cover image Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole

Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole

Susan Cain. Crown, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-0-451-49978-3

Business consultant Cain (Quiet) returns with an eye-opening take on the underestimated virtues of melancholy. She suggests that bittersweetness—“a tendency to states of longing, poignancy, and sorrow; an acute awareness of passing time; and a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world”—affords the opportunity to channel “pain into creativity, transcendence, and love,” as exemplified by musicians and other artists. Cain handily traverses fields as diverse as neuroscience, popular music, religion, and business management to find instances of the transformation of pain and longing into fulfillment: the music of Leonard Cohen, for example, is “a transcendence delivery system,” and in Michigan, a hospital billing department’s culture of caring for distressed or bereaved employees resulted in collecting bills faster. Though Cain’s panoramic scope covers some familiar ground (U.S. culture’s “tyranny of positivity” has been critiqued before), this ambitious work impresses in its dexterous integration of disparate thought traditions into a cohesive, moving, and insightful whole. Like a more intuitive Malcolm Gladwell, Cain delivers a deeply felt study of the profound uses of sorrow and melancholy, a perfect manual for coping with tough times. Agent: Richard Pine, InkWell Management (Apr.)