Here we are in the winter of 2021: homebound, isolated, and anxiety-ridden. We’re beginning the second year of COVID-19 — not to mention a time of massive unemployment, political unrest, and a long-overdue racial reckoning — and many are eager for solace. Into this strange and unsettling climate Anne Lamott, the prolific, inspirational author from Marin County, Calif., delivers her latest book, “Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage” — in which she posits, genuinely: “Where on earth do we start to get our world and joy and hope and our faith in life itself back?”
The book (Lamott’s 19th) is digestible and uplifting, conceived and packaged for the chaotic times we are facing. Although touching on a few broadly exterior topics (climate change), it mainly focuses on the human interior, Lamott’s speciality, with a particular emphasis on forgiveness of ourselves and others, acceptance, and unconditional love.
“Dusk, Night, Dawn” explores many of the same topics as Lamott’s recent bestsellers “Hallelujah Anyway,” “Small Victories and Almost Everything.” Here, sobriety, fear, and insecurity are viewed through the lens of age — or, as Lamott playfully frames it, the “third third” of life.” Don’t dismiss us, Lamott stresses to the reader, for “we still have much to give.”
As a way to explore some of these themes, she focuses on her new union. At the age of 65, Lamott married for the first time, and, she writes, “[d]read is having a field day with my recent marriage.” We’re not meant to take her wisecracks too seriously — an antic anxiety is part of Lamott’s charm, and by all accounts, the partnership seems solid and joyful.
What life throws at us remains very much out of our hands, Lamott reminds us. She cites a study showing that around 80 percent of people believe they are in control, while the truth is that we are only in control about three percent to seven percent of the time. Lamott’s observations are particularly well-suited for readers living in an age of distraction, hooked on screens and turning to meditation and self-care to regain awareness.
“I saw that I am heading (God willing) to a fat old age where I will have spent only 20% of any given day paying attention to life, to being where my feet are,” she observes. “The rest of the time will have been spent in the ticker tape of imaginings, a low-level fear about those I love, and the things I need to buy.”
Lamott is humble, vulnerable, and incredibly kind. She’s at her best when she reveals her ugly — and extremely human and universal — tendencies. In a story in which Lamott is overly critical of her friend’s romantic relationship, for instance, her portrayal of her inner thoughts rings honest and true, challenging readers to think hard about our tendency to judge, and how we can be more loving to each other.
As a reader who’s experienced real pleasure and inspiration from Lamott — “Bird by Bird,” her 1993 book on the writing life, has remained a touchstone — “Dusk, Night, Dawn” left me wanting more. Many of the pieces seemed to contain repetitive elements from her previous work (Lamott has been writing for four decades, and even she has admitted to not remembering the title of her last book) and thematically, the sections do not seem strongly centered.
The words sound and feel like Lamott. She’s reliably self-deprecating and witty –– “I have a doctorate in morbid reflection, and a grave anxiety disorder” –– and there always seems to be a happy message at the end. But where “Dusk, Night, Dawn” falls short is not reaching deep enough. Self-deprecation, after all, can also be a cover to hide under. I wished she had risked more, gone deeper.
Lamott is also prone to slipping into generalities and platitudes. Here’s one: “this is the truth of who I am: weird, beautiful, hobbled, beloved.” And: “love is the gas station and the fuel, the air and the water.” When used unsparingly, statements like these lose their power and become trite.
We are living in an age of “existential exhaustion,” Lamott points out. It is precisely now that readers crave something unique, nourishing, and illuminating — which we know Lamott can provide. I’m sad to say that “Dusk, Night, Dawn” isn’t quite it.
Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage
Riverhead, 224 pages, $20
Hope Reese is a freelance journalist currently based in Budapest. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.