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Bittersweet by Susan Cain
Narrative nonfiction

Bittersweet

by Susan Cain

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Quick take

Ever cried during a commercial or listened to Joni Mitchell curled up on the floor? This insightful book is for you.

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Synopsis

With Quiet, Susan Cain urged our society to cultivate space for the undervalued, indispensable introverts among us, thereby revealing an untapped power hidden in plain sight. Now she employs the same mix of research, storytelling, and memoir to explore why we experience sorrow and longing, and the surprising lessons these states of mind teach us about creativity, compassion, leadership, spirituality, mortality, and love.

Bittersweetness is a tendency to states of longing, poignancy, and sorrow; an acute awareness of passing time; and a curiously piercing joy when beholding beauty. It recognizes that light and dark, birth and death—bitter and sweet—are forever paired. A song in a minor key, an elegiac poem, or even a touching television commercial all can bring us to this sublime, even holy, state of mind—and, ultimately, to greater kinship with our fellow humans.

But bittersweetness is not, as we tend to think, just a momentary feeling or event. It’s also a way of being, a storied heritage. Our artistic and spiritual traditions—amplified by recent scientific and management research—teach us its power.

Cain shows how a bittersweet state of mind is the quiet force that helps us transcend our personal and collective pain. If we don’t acknowledge our own sorrows and longings, she says, we can end up inflicting them on others via abuse, domination, or neglect. But if we realize that all humans know—or will know—loss and suffering, we can turn toward each other. And we can learn to transform our own pain into creativity, transcendence, and connection.

At a time of profound discord and personal anxiety, Bittersweet brings us together in deep and unexpected ways.

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Free sample

Get an early look from the first pages of Bittersweet.
Bittersweet

Prelude

The Cellist of Sarajevo

One night, I dreamed that I was meeting my friend, a poet named Mariana, in Sarajevo, the city of love. I woke up confused. Sarajevo, a symbol of love? Wasn’t Sarajevo the site of one of the bloodiest civil wars of the late twentieth century?

Then I remembered.

Vedran Smailovic.

The cellist of Sarajevo.

It’s May 28, 1992, and Sarajevo is under siege. For centuries, Muslims, Croats, and Serbs have lived together in this city of streetcars and pastry shops, gliding swans in parkland ponds, Ottoman mosques and Eastern Orthodox cathedrals. A city of three religions, three peoples, yet until recently no one paid too much attention to who was who. They knew but they didn’t know; they preferred to see one another as neighbors who met for coffee or kebabs, took classes at the same university, sometimes got married, had children.

But now, civil war. Men on the hills flanking the city have cut the electricity and water supply. The 1984 Olympic stadium has burned down, its playing fields turned into makeshift graveyards. The apartment buildings are pockmarked from mortar assaults, the traffic lights are broken, the streets are quiet. The only sound is the crackling of gunfire.

Until this moment, when the strains of Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor fill the pedestrian street outside a bombed-out bakery.

Do you know this music? If not, maybe you should pause and listen to it right now: youtube.com/watch?v=kn1gcjuhlhg. It’s haunting, it’s exquisite, it’s infinitely sad. Vedran Smailovic, lead cellist of the Sarajevo opera orchestra, is playing it in honor of twenty-two people killed yesterday by a mortar shell as they lined up for bread. Smailovic was nearby when the shell exploded; he helped take care of the wounded. Now he’s returned to the scene of the carnage, dressed as if for a night at the opera house, in a formal white shirt and black tails. He sits amidst the rubble, on a white plastic chair, his cello propped between his legs. The yearning notes of the adagio float up to the sky.

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Why I love it

A decade ago, when Susan Cain unleashed Quiet into the world, millions of people across the globe found their experiences articulated and validated for the first time. She helped us see that there was both power and beauty in retreating inside ourselves, and she captures a similar duality in Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole. Here, she explores the importance of embracing our pain, our longing, and our loss, not just as vital aspects of being human, but also because without them, we dampen the fullness of our joy.

While encouraging us to pay attention to the bittersweet in life—a rainy day, an old photo, a lost love, a life’s mission born from tragedy—she profiles people who have done just that, while also citing research and sharing her own bittersweet experience of her difficult relationship with her mother. Along the way, she treats us to a history of the bittersweet mindset with teachings from philosophers to poets, scientists to songwriters, and caregivers to cartoonists.

This is a book that will make you cry in the best possible way, meaning that you won’t feel happy, but you’ll feel transformed. If you find yourself, as I did, moving toward instead away from the bittersweet in your own life—stopping to appreciate a waning sunset, grieving how soon my teenager will be moving into adulthood—you’ll know that Susan Cain is right: it’s in the bittersweet where we feel most alive.

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Member ratings (6,946)

  • Amy S.

    Belfair, WA

    This book was so eloquent, so relevant - that I knew it to be a favorite from pg xxii. In a “culture that has trained us, to our great impoverishment, not to ask” these questions, Cain’s answers heal.

  • Sarette A.

    Seattle, WA

    Both personal and scholarly, “Bittersweet” reads like a conversation with an intellectual and vulnerable friend. Like “Quiet,” this book empowered me to embrace a side of myself often undervalued.

  • Tara D.

    Plainfield, IL

    This has me tearing up on the first page! As someone that is “bittersweet” it was so refreshing to see I’m not the only one. I scored high on the test and loved this book and getting to know myself!

  • Brittany R.

    Millington, IL

    I highly recommend this book! It put beautiful words to things that I’ve often thought of but couldn’t quite put a finger on. Many thanks to Susan C for giving these feelings/questions a public voice!

  • Cassandra D.

    Farmingdale, NY

    This book made me feel like maybe my clinical depression isn’t all bad. W/o it, I wouldn’t have this profound appreciation for the beauty in sadness. A different take on things for sure & I loved it.

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