Laurie Colwin

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Laurie Colwin 1945–

American short story writer and novelist.

Colwin's subject in her fiction of manners is the nature of human love in contemporary society. Her tone is optimistic because she chooses bright, attractive heroines.

(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 13 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89-92.)

Dorothy Rabinowitz

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Laurie Colwin redeems the lately much-battered theme of self-discovery in [Shine On, Bright & Dangerous Object]…. And though it is loaded with all those motifs about growing and finding oneself …, this bright and elegant novel has been accomplished without a jot of fashionable cant. It contains a love story—not one, in fact, but several. Miss Colwin's protagonist suffers bereavement: she copes, she learns, she grieves. Above all, she observes, and here she is at her best: vulnerable, but with a mordantly witty eye for social detail, for the marks of caste and class that are rooted deep in personality. On the surface the plot is slender enough—Miss Colwin's protagonist makes her way from love to love—but the drama of that route is complex, the point of view unfaltering.

Dorothy Rabinowitz, "New Books: 'Shine On, Bright & Dangerous Object'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 2, No. 19, June 14, 1975, p. 39.

Helen Chasin

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["Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object"] has the style, wit, and intuitions of intelligent writing; happily it lacks the archness that the title suggests.

"Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object" is an exploration of love and of its failures and absences. At age 27, Olly Bax becomes a widow when her husband Sam, often injured and accident-prone, goes boating in a storm and drowns….

In fact Olly and Sam have had one of those marriages in which the participants are more like siblings than lovers, in which the emotional attachment is affection rather than passion. She is forced to acknowledge this more quickly by her loss, grief, and retrospection than she would have been if the marriage had played out its "natural" and inevitably disastrous course….

Olly uses her mourning period to figure out how she wants to live. She does seem to get more practical help—e.g., an apartment in New York City, a job, a stint at a musicians' colony in New Hampshire—than most of us could reasonably hope for. And a terrific love affair, including one of those idyllic rainy weekends making love, eating, reading, being ecstatic. But who would begrudge it to her?

Especially since Olly has done a lot of hard work observing and thinking. It is her sensibility which informs the book, and hers is an interesting one….

Laurie Colwin has a keen ear and a talent for rendering individual and particular ways of speaking. Similarly her heroine is sensitive to the uses of language….

In learning to deal with complexities, to take important risks, Olly moves more fully into adulthood and its difficult pleasures: work, friendship, passion.

Helen Chasin, "The Widow Didn't Weep" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1975), in The Village Voice, Vol. XX, No. 31, August 4, 1975, p. 36.

Anne Barnes

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Laurie Colwin's exceptionally good short stories [in Dangerous French Mistress and Other Stories (published in America as Passion and Affect )] seem at first to be like sketches for long, open-ended novels. She is precise in her portraits of people but leaves their relationships with each other undefined, so that the reader feels they may change direction at any moment. Almost all the stories are about love, passionate, familial or adolescent, yet Miss Colwin is on the whole more interested in separateness than in togetherness. She describes a man who, in the middle of...

(This entire section contains 416 words.)

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a passionate affair, feels that he must escape to solitude, leaving the girl who loves him to silent, uncomprehending grief….

Many of the stories are about obsession or eccentricity. A retiring academic's life is disrupted by a girl who suddenly starts visiting him at his flat, never speaks to him, but single-mindedly seduces him. He doesn't particularly object to that, but on each visit she disturbs his carefully arranged books, which produces in him a mounting frustration strong enough to upset the whole structure of his neatly ordered life. This kind of manic tension is conveyed equally forcefully elsewhere. A man becomes obsessed with the need to shoot the water-rats which he sees near his house, because they seem to embody unspecified threats to the cosy world sheltering his wife and children. His awareness of the fragility of his family's happiness in itself isolates him from them. In another story there is a comparison between two men obsessed with seemingly hostile, self-sufficient women. In all these situations, the apparent companionship of the characters, the conscious sharing of practicalities, intensifies their sense of isolation.

Some of the stories are comic. There is a ferocious description of a snobbish academic lady taking part in a television contest to become the "smartest woman in America", and in another story a picture of what might seem to be the opposite affectation: a girl so deeply intelligent that she is incapable of speech. It is the simplest themes which are the most effectively presented. Only when the author tackles the shapelessness of adolescent puppy love does she flounder: the point is smudged and the inconclusiveness of her technique often makes the story too tenuous. She is, however, a very delicate, economical writer and her well-judged restraint makes the obsessions she describes both realistic and bearable.

Anne Barnes, "Isolated Cases," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1975; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), September 5, 1975, p. 998.

Gabriele Annan

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The long wait for Daughter of "Love Story" is over. Here it is [in Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object], only this time it is the young husband who dies. Sam is a patrician WASP Boston lawyer, and Olly is Jewish instead of Italian Catholic….

Olly is twenty-seven when Sam drowns sailing off the coast of Maine, and the first part of the novel is about her adjusting to widowhood. It is thoughtful, probing and reminds one of the classier women's columns….

It turns out, gradually but not quite unpredictably, that Patrick [Sam's brother] has secretly loved Olly all along, although she has always thought him remote; now, with much reluctance and displays of pride and rage, she discovers that she loves him too. This story was corny when Shakespeare wrote Much Ado, but when Patrick takes Olly to bed for the first time, the corn grows as high as an elephant's eye….

[Peace] descends like a huge poultice. Poultices make everything all right, but in fiction that can hardly ever be done without a certain amount of dishonesty. Olly is the first-person narrator: clever, gifted, thoughtful, analytical, conscientious; "I had spent my life watching over my emotional states and everyone else's as if they were emerging Art." A girl like that would not have been taken in by her own hostility to Patrick, nor can you believe that Laurie Colwin believes that she is. She may throw up a smokescreen of self-criticism, and Miss Colwin another of intellectual and social sophistication; but through them both Olly shines warmly for what she is: the heroine of a wish-fulfilment romance—girl gets second boy.

Gabriele Annan, "Girl Gets Second Boy," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3874, June 11, 1976, p. 689.

Joyce Carol Oates

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"The Lone Pilgrim" cannot be recommended to those whose hearts have been pierced by the cynical notion that stereotypical "romantic" situations are not viable as art, or who expect from a writer a great deal more, by way of characterization, than ebullient catalogues of hairstyles, clothes, sports, nicknames, hobbies, apartment furnishings and quirks of diet. Yet Miss Colwin writes with such sunny skill, and such tireless enthusiasm, that her overmined subject matter becomes insignificant, and one reads with fascination the steps by which lovers in one story after another stumble upon their forthright declarations [of love]…. The stories' disingenuous female narrators, and the author's charming if puzzling observations ("Falling in love outside of marriage is the ultimate, and every other gesture is its shadow"), are adroitly concocted; and at least one story, "A Girl Skating," which touches upon issues rather more weighty than romance, is very good indeed. "The Lone Pilgrim" will not nudge Doris Lessing's short fiction off the shelf—but then it is not intended to do so. (pp. 12, 21)

Joyce Carol Oates, "Many Stories," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 25, 1981, pp. 12, 21.∗

Allen Wier

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[The stories in The Lone Pilgrim] are usually about wealthy, properly-raised young women and their decisions to have love affairs. The stories are told in blocks of narrative generalization, lists of domestic details, long expository passages and overtly thematic statements. The descriptions are almost interchangeable and consist mainly of adjectives such as pretty, faunlike, boyish, curly-haired, lithe, beautiful, attractive, and rich. The characters are as superficial as the stories are predictable. It is difficult to feel any compassion for them; they are self-absorbed and amoral. It is likewise difficult to feel too much disgust for them: they are one-dimensional and unbelievable….

The better stories in The Lone Pilgrim, "Travel," "Delia's Father," and "A Girl Skating," suffer, only to less extent, from the same superficial treatment and sentimental excesses as the rest of the book.

Allen Wier, "Glimpses into the Heart," in Book World—The Washington Post, (© 1981, The Washington Post), February 22, 1981, p. 10.

Anatole Broyard

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[In "The Lone Pilgrim" Laurie Colwin] writes about some of the unsuccessful aspects [of love]….

In a story called "Sentimental Memory," a happily married woman meets with a former lover and with a despairing insight: "I was, I discovered, capable of adultery." One is tempted to ask: if love doesn't protect you against love, what hope is there for the world? Quite a few women in "The Lone Pilgrim" discover that they are capable of adultery, and Miss Colwin seems to be writing a much-needed catechism for them. Sometimes adultery is as simple as breathing, and sometimes it is as simple as dying….

"A Girl Skating" is a curious study of an adolescent girl who is the unwilling object of a famous middle-aged poet's obsession. She can hardly move without finding that movement immortalized in a poem. She feels that the poet is robbing her of her youth by articulating it better than she herself can. One or two stories are about the taxonomy of love: should it be a grand event or something to live with?…

Some of Miss Colwin's images are striking, and strikingly sad, in the way that images in modern stories tend to be. In "Travel," a couple who married relatively late in life travel incessantly in a desperate attempt to build up a reservoir of common experience, something about which they can have an "exclusive understanding."

One of the prettiest—and again, the saddest—images in "The Lone Pilgrim" is of a young woman and the man she loves, who is afraid to marry her. As they sit in the bathtub together, she reads to him Sir Thomas Wyatt's poem "They Flee From Me, That Sometime Did Me Seek."

An author who can conjure an image like that is worth reading. "The Lone Pilgrim" is "an education in yearning." It is a reminder that most of us, whether we do it or not, "are capable of adultery." Miss Colwin's book is itself a love affair, and as another of her characters says, "A love affair will teach anyone with sense a thing or two about esthetics."

Anatole Broyard, "Books of the Times: 'The Lone Pilgrim'," in The New York Times (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 4, 1981, p. C25.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin

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I've finally figured out why I love reading the novels and stories of Laurie Colwin and why I feel guilty about it. I would like to be any one of her women protagonists; they don't embarrass me, they are admirable and lovely and very, very smart. But I'm guilty because Colwin's women—every one of them—are so elite, so impossibly gifted, so culturally and romantically self-involved, so oblivious to major issues (like poverty or abortion rights), and so blissfully untouched by the sooty short-falls of life's bank accounts….

[The Lone Pilgrim] is fiction a feminist can love if you are willing to love stories about one woman after another who is brilliant in a different field, quirky in an enchanting new way, and more often than not, lives happily ever after with a man who seems clearly to deserve her.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, "Moveable Feast," in Ms. (© 1981 Ms. Magazine Corp.), Vol. X, No. 1, July, 1981, p. 89.∗

Saturday Review

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[In The Lone Pilgrim Laurie Colwin] writes with uncommon good sense and good humor about the ever-changing configurations of modern romance. In the title story, the always-a-bridesmaid narrator begins her tale: "I have been the house pet to several families: friendly, cheerful, good with children…." These 13 stories are at times heart warming, at times heartbreaking, and always perceptive. Colwin weds the traditional fiction of manners—love, marriage, misalliances—to a witty, contemporary sensibility. The result is remarkable.

"Short Stories: 'The Lone Pilgrim'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1981 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 8, No. 7, July, 1981, p. 79.

Holly Eley

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"The idea of committed, settled love is as remote to a romantic as lunar soil." Thus [in The Lone Pilgrim] one of Laurie Colwin's middle-class WASP heroines aphoristically pigeonholes emotion before concentrating on practical problems, the resolution of which provides her not only with immediate fulfilment but also with the will-power to continue to avoid monogamy. All the heroines of the thirteen stories in The Lone Pilgrim are prone to declarations such as "Woe to those who get what they desire", "I don't want social life. I want love, or nothing."… This kind of Jean Rhysian attitudinizing in John Cheever country would soon pall, were it not that most of these women, before venturing on to the highwire of a complicated love affair, have provided themselves with the safety-nets of a loving, loved family and a satisfying job….

The best story is "The Achieve of, the Mastery of the Thing"; the only one in which the central love affair is not between a man and a woman. Hopkins's windhover is a metaphor for marijuana, and a liaison between "Professor Thorne Speizer's stoned wife" and the inanimate, in a carefully imagined 1960s campus ambience, furnishes scope for descriptive humour.

Because of Laurie Colwin's detached sense of the absurd and because she does not cheat, she is able, in this assured second collection of stories, to exploit a demanding genre to the full and sustain a potentially risky theme without descending into bathos.

Holly Eley, "Safe Landings," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4088, August 7, 1981, p. 918.


Colwin, Laurie (Vol. 13)


Colwin, Laurie (Vol. 5)