Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Family Happiness—with its somewhat ironic title—covers six months in the life of its principal character, Polly Solo-Miller Demarest. Polly has never questioned her role in her family, or rather her several roles. She is a dutiful, uncritical daughter to Henry and Wendy Solo-Miller, her two rather difficult parents; a mediator between Henry and Paul, her two eccentric brothers; a devoted wife to Henry Demarest, a man whom she deeply loves, though he too is somewhat difficult; a loving, attentive mother to Pete and Dee-Dee; a paragon of a household manager; and the holder of an important, though part-time, job. A few months before the novel opens, Polly began an affair with a well-known painter of landscapes and portraits named Lincoln Bennett. The novel concerns the ways in which Polly tries to come to terms with herself and her life as the affair forces her to discover some truths about her family, her life, and herself.

The novel consists of a series of scenes and events in Polly’s life, usually in company with one or more members of her family or with her lover. The book opens with a typical family occasion, Sunday brunch, which is a strictly observed ritual. Other scenes show Polly with her husband and, most prominently, Polly’s frequent afternoons and occasional evenings with Lincoln Bennett. Polly is in every scene, usually in conversations and always trying hard to be accommodating, helpful, understanding, and good-humored. Many of the scenes are set at mealtimes, and eating serves as a symbol for the relationships revealed unconsciously on those occasions. Laurie Colwin was a prominent writer on food and its importance in social situations. When writing about food, she is vivid, colorful, and convincing.

From the beginning of her affair with Lincoln, Polly has...

(The entire section is 739 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Although Family Happiness examines the many roles that women play in society, it does so only in highly personal and specific terms. Polly is not presented as a representative of her gender or as a spokeswoman for those who suffer unrealistic and unreasonable demands such as those placed upon her by her family. Her family is so privileged and set apart that it can hardly be seen as a paradigm of social structure for others to emulate or denigrate.

That Colwin was aware of the issues apparent in this novel cannot be denied. Without the problems that Polly faces there would be no novel, but the fact that Polly sees them as private and individual indicates that Colwin did not wish to present these issues in a larger context. Polly feels the rage and despair that many of her generation experienced, but to her the source of her suffering is neglect and being taken for granted by the people whom she serves so devotedly and competently. Her solution is to take a lover who is exactly what she wants—a man who does not disrupt her family life, who is completely ardent and interested in her, and who is as separate from her as her husband Henry, though in a different way. That the two men are essentially the same kind of man is significant.

Polly never considers divorce; her family does not believe in it, and by implication, neither does she. She does not see her struggle to achieve an identity apart from her family and her lover as emblematic...

(The entire section is 471 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Cahill, Susan, ed. New Women and New Fiction: Short Stories Since the Sixties. New York: New American Library, 1986. Includes Colwin’s short story “The Lone Pilgrim.”

Dark, Larry, ed. The Literary Lover: Great Contemporary Stories of Passion and Romance. New York: Viking Press, 1993. Includes Colwin’s short story “Frank and Billy.”

McLoughlin, Pat, ed. Woman’s Hour Book of Short Stories. London: BBC Books, 1990. Includes Colwin’s short story “Another Marvelous Thing.”

Pearlman, Mickey, and Katherine Usher Henderson. Inter/view: Talks with America’s Writing Women. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1990. Includes an interview with Laurie Colwin.