Bittersweet by Susan Cain review – a mawkish manifesto for the happy-sad

Health, mind and body books

The author of Quiet again bangs the drum for the world’s sensitive souls, but her unflagging earnestness is depressingly short of nuance and humour

Now then, on a scale of 0 to 10: do you seek out beauty in your everyday life? Do you know what CS Lewis meant when he described joy as a “sharp, wonderful stab of longing”? Do you react intensely to music or art or nature? Are you moved by old photographs? Do you experience happiness and sadness simultaneously?

If your answer is emphatically yes to these and similar questions in Susan Cain’s Bittersweet Quiz (I came to a jarring halt at the one about being perceived as an “old soul”), then you will score highly and qualify as a “true connoisseur of the place where light and dark meet”. You are not sanguine (robust, forward-leaning, ambitious, combat-ready, tough), but bittersweet – and to be bittersweet means to be sensitive, creative and spiritual, with 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”. Bittersweet, writes Susan Cain with her startling sincerity, means the transformation of pain into “creativity, transcendence and love”.

In Quiet, Cain argued that we undervalue inward-looking, reflective, dreamy introverts in favour of the loud extrovert, who is gregarious, confident, bold, thick-skinned and successful. Bittersweet – a kind, optimistic and unflaggingly earnest book, not a fleck of humour on the horizon – is really a variation on the same theme and uses the same doubtful binary model. While the sanguine are the cheerful toughies in charge of the world, bittersweet is a neglected but truly beautiful quality. It’s the compassion instinct, it’s sadness, it’s modesty, it’s hidden suffering and quietness and the plangent allure of the happy-sad, the oh-so-aching sense of time passing. It’s Leonard Cohen (Cain is ardent for Cohen, her troubadour of pessimism, which actually made me question my own love for him), Aristotle, sufism, Pippi Longstocking, Baudelaire, Nina Simone, the Qur’an and the Bible, Plato, Rumi, meditations, Maya Angelou…

Like Quiet, Bittersweet is an easy-on-the-ego hybrid of genres. Cain turns to other people’s stories as well as her own (her best and plainest writing is reserved for her own losses). She plaits these narratives together with research, philosophy, psychology, art and religion. Her statements about literature often made me blink (how does she know that Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet out of longing?). Gobbets of wisdom are scooped out of their necessary context and deployed to teach a crucial lesson: attend to the bittersweet; feeling the longing inside you. Because really this is a motivational book, sometimes like an expanded Ted Talk, each chapter drawing to a climax of kindness and connectivity with others, and often like a how-to manual designed to help the reader come closer to their vulnerable core: ask yourself what you’re longing for, have a go at this online guided version of loving-kindness meditation and here are seven ways of coping with loss… There’s something for everyone in this pick’n’mix feel-sad, feel-good assemblage.

Cain wants a kinder, deeper, more connected and creative world. She has obviously thrown herself heart and soul into writing a book that will draw us together. But Bittersweet – much of which I cannot disagree with – did not uplift me. It depressed me and also made me feel grumpy. Its unflagging earnestness and sweetness of spirit flattens the terrain; everything feels like topsoil and nothing can grow deep roots. With her belief in the fundamental bittersweetness of us all, Cain seeks to erase differences between political groups, rich and poor (I don’t understand why she turned to Princeton colleagues, industry leaders or the House of Beautiful Business for her examples or attended motivational workshops in Silicon Valley where privileged people could discover their secret wounds), between cultures and classes and religions.

She also blithely fails to discriminate between the profound and the mawkish or charlatan: Romeo and Juliet sits cheek by jowl with The Bridges of Madison County, Freud with pop psychology. There are quotations from St Augustine or Charles Darwin and also platitudes such as “longing is the gateway to belonging” or “we are all reaching for the heavens”. I’m all for the bittersweet – I love rainy days and sad songs too and drone Leonard Cohen songs on my bike – but after reading this book my longing was for the earth: for the salt of irony, for specificity, anger, doubt and laughter.

Bittersweet by Susan Cain is published by Viking (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply












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