Laurie Colwin Colwin, Laurie (Vol. 84) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Passion and Affect (short stories) 1974
Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object (novel) 1975
Happy All The Time (novel) 1978
The Lone Pilgrim (short stories) 1981
Family Happiness (novel) 1982
Another Marvelous Thing (short stories) 1986
Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen (essays) 1988
Goodbye without Leaving (novel) 1990
A Big Storm Knocked It Over (novel) 1993

Carolyn See (review date 19 September 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Family Happiness, in The New York Times Book Review, September 19, 1982, pp. 13, 42.

[See is an American educator and novelist. In the following review, she faults the storyline of Family Happiness as weak and implausible.]

Polly Solo-Miller Demarest is one of those heroines of American fiction who appear to have everything. She is married to a large, handsome, usually amiable husband, Henry; she has two sweet children, Pete and Dee-Dee; she lives in a Park Avenue apartment; she has graduated from a good school and holds down a high-level job, as Coordinator of Research in Reading Projects and Methods for the Board of Education ("This job combined some of the things Polly held most dear—service, children, and books").

What else does it take to make life perfect? The wonderful job only takes up three days of her week. Her husband makes more than enough money. Polly herself is beautiful, still young and powerfully cheerful. And she is a functioning part of a larger family that gathers together for big occasions and small—what a rarity!

The extended Solo-Miller family consists of her father, Henry Sr., who dwells in what Polly thinks of as "the realm of the higher mind"; that is, his mind is on his own concerns. Polly's older brother, Paul, is a priggish bachelor whose reputation for intelligence is so firmly entrenched that he no longer has to say anything bright. The younger brother, Henry Jr., has married the daughter of Czech refugees: "She and Henry, Jr., behaved more like brother and sister than like a married couple. They wore each other's clothes, did not plan to have children, played with their dog, and dedicated themselves to kite flying." The chatelaine of the extended court is the former Constanzia Hendricks, now called Wendy, a well-bred narcissist who has trained up her daughter, Polly, to be her perfect luncheon companion. Polly's place in the family is clear: "She had never given anyone the slightest pause. Her family doted on her, but no one felt it was necessary to pay much attention to someone as sturdy, upright, cheerful, and kind as she."

The situation, then, is perfection to start. Readers of Laurie Colwin will remember that her last novel, Happy All the Time, ended with just such a portion of domestic bliss: plenty of order, harmony, civility, good meals; plenty of champagne, good-looking young men and women in love and the implicit promise of a new generation. But … then what? Polly used to be in love with her husband, but Henry is a good provider, which means he spends a great deal of time at work and often is too tired to make love in the evenings or jokes in broad daylight. So Polly is in the position of a person who has bought a gorgeous car that doesn't run very well: It looks good (people express their envy to...

(The entire section is 1184 words.)

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels (review date 8 April 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Can We Stand Happiness?" in Commonweal, Vol. 110, No. 7, April 8, 1983, pp. 218-20.

[In the following favorable review, Steinfels maintains that Family Happiness is "not great literature but an extremely satisfying read on a cold Saturday afternoon."]

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

You have read that sentence before. The first clause holds your attention while you try to imagine the alikeness of happy families, but its plausibility soon fades. Is it their alikeness that is elusive or their happiness? The second clause is the stuff of great literature....

(The entire section is 1216 words.)

Robb Forman Drew (review date 13 April 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Another Marvelous Thing, in The New York Times Book Review, April 13, 1986, p. 14.

[In the following mixed review, Drew discusses the characters and structure of the short story collection Another Marvelous Thing.]

More often than not, in real life the love affairs of one's friends are heartbreaking to watch, no matter where one's sympathies or loyalties may lie. When couples begin resorting themselves into ill-considered combinations, it is quite painful to watch the flailing about of the children and spouses left in their wake. But Laurie Colwin's new book chronicles a charmingly romantic love affair in which there are no dire consequences...

(The entire section is 982 words.)

Martha Southgate (review date 17 January 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Slim Pickings," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, January 17, 1989, p. 58.

[In the following review, Southgate offers a negative appraisal of Home Cooking.]

Reading too much Laurie Colwin is sometimes like watching too many episodes of thirtysomething: The attractive and amusing surface starts to seem self-centered and narrow-minded. Even in her best work, like the novel Happy All the Time or the story collection The Lone Pilgrim, this is sometimes a problem, though those books are redeemed by a delightful sense of humor, fully drawn characters, and an often cutting emotional accuracy. Colwin has been compared to Jane Austen and...

(The entire section is 431 words.)

Jeanne Schinto (review date Spring 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Art of Eating Words," in The Yale Review, Vol. 79, No. 3, Spring, 1990, pp. 488-500.

[In the excerpt below, Schinto discusses the the symbolic role of food and cooking in Home Cooking and in Colwin's fiction.]

Occasionally, a novelist turns from fiction to recipes. Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, a collection of essays, is exactly the kind of cookbook that Rachel Samstat would write. It's chatty and anecdotal, though the recipes are integral rather than incidental to its design. This truly is a cookbook, and proudly so. Having published novels and short stories, Colwin seems content to write in the cookbook genre for...

(The entire section is 664 words.)

Michiko Kakutani (review date 4 May 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Awful Time Living a Perfect Life," in The New York Times, May 4, 1990, p. C36.

[In the following unfavorable review, Kakutani analyzes the characterization of Colwin's protagonist in Goodbye without Leaving.]

Geraldine Coleshares, the heroine of Laurie Colwin's [Goodbye without Leaving], is a wife, mother and former backup singer with a rhythm-and-blues band. She describes herself as "a person who craved the marginal," a "nothing," who's "alone in the middle of the universe," "the harbinger of new life," "the innocent American, making trouble right and left—a microcosm of imperialism."

"I want to know," she says, "how to be what I...

(The entire section is 924 words.)

Lorraine E. McCormack (review date Winter 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Be True to Your School," in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 6, No. 2, Winter, 1991, p. 13.

[Below, McCormack offers a positive assessment of Goodbye without Leaving.]

Like a lot of us, Geraldine Coleshares is having a little trouble finding her place in the universe. As a failed graduate student, successful rock-and-roll back-up singer, reluctant wife, and enchanted mother, never has a person with so rich a mixture of life experiences been so despairing of its value. In Goodbye Without Leaving, novelist Laurie Colwin gives us a comic version of the quest for life's meaning in which her main character is a combination of Woody Allen with...

(The entire section is 1022 words.)

Amy Richlin (essay date Spring-Summer 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Guilty Pleasures: The Fiction of Laurie Colwin," in New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly, Vol. 13, Nos. 3-4, Spring-Summer, 1991, pp. 296-309.

[In the following essay, Richlin provides an overview of Colwin's fiction.]

"As for the book, it's no good writing about the upper classes if you hope to be taken seriously. You must have noticed that by now? Station masters, my dear, station masters."

"I know, I know. Of course, I have noticed. But you see my trouble is that I loathe station masters, like hell I do…."

—Nancy Mitford, Christmas Pudding


(The entire section is 7248 words.)

Pearl K. Bell (review date Winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of A Big Storm Knocked It Over, in Partisan Review, Vol. LXI, No. 1, 1994, pp. 93-95.

[In the following excerpt, Bell furnishes a laudatory review of Colwin's last novel.]

[Laurie Colwin's A Big Storm Knocked It Over] is a treasure beyond counting, the last of a series of novels in which she explored the domestic territory that was so distinctly and memorably her own as a writer. The public world outside the boundaries of her private fiefdom is scarcely mentioned in her work: no politics, no social problems, no global turmoil. What fascinated Colwin was the agony and wonder of family life, the way clannish obligations shape an...

(The entire section is 930 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Davenport, Gary. "The Two Worlds of Contemporary American Fiction." Sewanee Review 92, No. 1 (January 1984): 128-36.

Contends that "except for occasional and slight traces of glibness Family Happiness bears witness to Laurie Colwin's continuing development as one of our most consistently intelligent and engaging novelists."

Duguid, Lindsay. "A Civilized Affair." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4377 (27 February 1987): 206.

Mixed review of Another Marvelous Thing.

Eder, Richard. "First the Rhythm, Then the Blues."...

(The entire section is 202 words.)