Laurie Colwin 1944–1992
American short story writer, novelist, and essayist.
The following entry provides an overview of Colwin's career. For further discussion of her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 13, and 23.
Colwin is noted for her short stories and novels that portray the lives of attractive, well-educated, upper-class people. Although often faulted by critics for the limited range of her characters, themes, and settings, her fiction has been compared to that of Jane Austen for its concern with manners, privacy, and happiness in marital and familial relationships. As Robb Forman Drew asserts, Colwin "seems intent upon providing us with a witty, literate and intelligent entertainment, a commodity not so easily come by these days, and in that effort she has certainly succeeded."
Colwin was born in New York City and grew up in Chicago and Philadelphia. She returned to New York City to attend the Columbia School of General Studies, and after graduation she worked on the editorial staff of several large publishing houses. Colwin published her first full-length work, Passion and Affect, in 1974. She died of a heart attack in 1992.
Commentators generally agree that Colwin's novels and short stories are all similar in tone, setting, and theme. Amy Richlin has determined the defining traits of Colwin's fiction to be "good fortune for all characters, verging on magical realism; settings of equally unreal beauty, in terms of weather, domestic appointments, seasons; and a continuous metanarrative discussion of the problems of human happiness, change, time, nostalgia. These contents are packaged in a style of great rhetorical polish, intensely pleasurable to read." The plot of Colwin's Family Happiness (1982), for example, incorporates several of these elements; Polly, the protagonist of the story, is beautiful, happily married, and well-loved by family and friends, yet she enters into a love affair with an artist. Colwin explores Polly's inner conflict between familial obligations and the exhilaration of a new relationship, tracing her emotional development throughout the book. In Colwin's last novel, A Big Storm Knocked It Over (1993), a newly married woman, Jane, struggles with ambivalent feelings about her marriage, pregnancy, and the strong attraction she feels toward her boss. The narrative examines the relationship between Jane and her best friend as they both become new mothers and as they attempt to define their roles in their respective marriages and professions.
Several critics have derided Colwin for the limited scope of her fiction and have faulted her short stories and novels for their unsympathetic and self-involved characters. However, many commentators praise her works for their intelligent and humorous reflections on romance, family, friendship, and the effort to maintain privacy and self-awareness in the contemporary world. Regarding her predominantly domestic concerns, Willard Spiegelman contends: "Colwin has established herself as an anatomist of sanguinity in an age when unhappy families and desperate social lives have become the norm in fiction." Summarizing Colwin's contribution, Kate Lehrer asserts that she "gave us something of a cross between Noel Coward's drawing room and Jane Austen's domestic parlor, all wrapped in a most contemporary setting and sensibility."