Laurie Colwin

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Carolyn See (review date 19 September 1982)

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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 her constantly; they're convinced she's got life "aced"), but she knows that under the hood the motor's a lemon. The beautiful husband won't talk, the children are ephemeral, and the family that functions as a fortress for her is also, of course, a prison.

It will come as no surprise that Polly takes a lover. What else can she do? Not for her Peru, or the Peace Corps, or a Ph.D. It's a lover or nothing. Hers is out of a dream. He's well educated and from her class—a painter whose work and temperament dictate that he spend most of his waking life alone. His name is Lincoln Bennett, and he's madly in love with Polly. Family Happiness consists of the question, how happy can family happiness make you? Is it all right to want a little of your own happiness? Can a female human being expect to be seen as a human being instead of a family functionary—a robot who picks up the baguettes for a dinner party, who takes her husband's business suits to and from the cleaners, who can always be relied on "to provide something scrumptious for dessert"?

In many ways Family Happiness seems like a charming, ingratiating, beautifully written novel saved up from 50 years ago. Certainly the Solo-Miller family comes from predivorce days. Polly seems never to have heard of the feminist movement in any manifestation, and her moral scruples seem exaggerated for any decade of the 20th century. She is afraid to have Lincoln visit her at her apartment for even a "social" call, because she is afraid of what the doorman will say.

Polly and Lincoln's affair continues. Her family never notices because they never notice her. But her early euphoria turns to guilt, gloom, despair. She and Lincoln separate for a while, and Polly, driven by this series of devastating emotions, finds a girlfriend to confide in at her office, begins to talk to her husband again and—for the first time in her life—rather petulantly sasses her mother. After consolidating these gains, will Polly return to the straight and narrow, or will she keep her handsome, attentive lover?

This is "women's material" with a vengeance. But then what do most women have but marriage and children? How do they express freedom, despair, rebellion, mutiny, euphoria, abandon, except with a lover? It is certainly not Laurie Colwin's fault that these facts continue to pertain. It may be her fault, however, that the two men in Polly's life are cut from the purest cardboard. It never occurs to anyone, not Polly, not any of the in-laws, not even the author, that when Henry Demarest is on a business trip, he's on anything but a business trip. He's a large, boring, nice husband, period. And the "fact" that Lincoln Bennett, the other man, has to be alone—why does Polly believe it so implicitly? Why is the world famous painter so gaga about this sturdy, cheerful housewife that any other woman is out of the question for him? Because he must function here as part of a housewife's fantasy, that's why.

Something's wrong with the story of Family Happiness. Polly is so much a compendium of secondary virtues that she doesn't quite appear as a human being: "In the supermarket, Polly harangued herself. People who shopped on Sunday were people who had let things get out of hand, who paid no attention to detail, who let themselves get lost. There were people who actually bought their vegetables at the supermarket." All this is very well in the way of scruples and refinement, but why won't Laurie Colwin let her Polly consider for a second what might happen to the rest of her life if indeed the doorman did let slip something to her husband, or if, in some other way, the world discovered the cheerful housewife was having a serious affair?

People might get hurt, the situation might get out of hand. Such a new situation might approximate reality, but Family Happiness is safe in the realm of domestic fantasy; safe—safe as houses. Which is not to say that Laurie Colwin's next novel might not deal with just this problem.

Introduction

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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."

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

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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. Anna Karenina opens with that epigram, but so could the works of Dickens, George Eliot, Ibsen, O'Neill, etc. The diverse miseries of unhappy families grow in geometric proportion to the length of novel or play. Happy families whose good spirits we may enjoy at Christmas dinner, we will not endure for 750 pages. A novel about happy families, if it is not ironic, is necessarily brief.

Laurie Colwin's previous novel has the daft title, Happy All the Time. The hero, a foundation president, is led in the spirit of courtly love through an excruciatingly protracted courtship while remaining ever hopeful, kind, and loyal. Happy all the time. I finished it smiling.

Family Happiness has some of its bedazzling qualities: not great literature but an extremely satisfying read on a cold Saturday afternoon. In fact, in the spirit of "domestic sensuousness" that Colwin extols in her short story, "The Lone Pilgrim," Family Happiness ought to be read while reclining with pillows on a plump old couch handed down from your maternal grandmother. You read, absorbed and silent, wrapped in a nineteenth-century blue and white quilt stitched by a distant cousin on her marriage trip from Philadelphia to Boston in 1854. Colwin is big on families and family heirlooms. The domestic interiors of happy families are crowded with beloved objects. A sure sign of pathology in her fiction is a bare room.

The central proposition of Family Happiness is not that the Solo-Miller clan is similar to other happy families, but that the happy family ensemble has a life and rhythm of its own. Its happiness is not the mere sum of individual happinesses, nor is its vitality threatened by passing individual miseries. Polly Solo-Miller Demarest, daughter, wife, and mother, occupies the foreground. Her fall from grace and complacent happiness into bewildering unhappiness and her ascent back to a guarded happiness constitute the plot. But her extended family is the background and anchor of the story.

There is one handsome, but distracted, husband; two darling and wise children; a sometime neurasthenic mother; a crank of a father; two grown but pathetically immature brothers; their wives; and "branches in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, as well as London just like a banking house." Old, established, wealthy—financiers of the American revolution—the Solo-Millers enjoy nothing so much as their own company. The novel opens and closes with their ritual Sunday breakfast eaten at midday: for starters, "heavy white plates of smoked salmon, silver baskets of toast points, dishes of capers, lemon slices and scallions, and a cobalt-blue dish of niçoise olives." The sole difference between the novel's first breakfast and last is that Polly leaves the first early, ostensibly for a meeting, but actually for a brief tryst with her lover, Lincoln Bennett; in the last she does not leave. The story between is not filled with moral drama or passion but a subtle and fine moral suasion in which Polly refuses to find cause for her affair in the sometime neglect of her family. Lincoln Bennett, a recluse and a painter, is simply the first and dearest friend she has ever had. He lives beyond the family's reach.

The Solo-Millers are smug, or so Lincoln informs the uncritical Polly, and at moments are fairly wretched individuals. Still they are appealing; and it is easy to fall in love with the idea of the Solo-Millers. Their tribal life has not been touched by modernization except in small details; they own a Silex coffee pot, but cannot get it to work. Solo-Millers do not leave the family when they marry, their spouses join the family; nor do they divorce or approve of divorce. The apartments of the junior members are glowing satellites circling the parental hearth. They celebrate holidays and spend their vacations together. Their judgments are stern and their forbearance limited.

The matriarch Wendy, née Constanzia Hendricks, and the patriarch Henry Solo-Miller, Sr., preside at the Sunday breakfast as at a high liturgy. A concert or gallery opening is the occasion of a solemn procession and their single yearly attendance at synagogue on Yom Kippur "was with a sense of aristocracy. Anyone could be a Christian. Not anyone could be a Jew, and very few Jews were the sort of Jews the Demarests and the Solo-Millers were. It had been said of Grandfather Solo-Miller that he behaved as if he had chosen God, and not the other way around." Fealty, constancy, and excellence are the virtues of this clan. In addition, Polly is "sturdy, upright, cheerful, and kind." She is Polly the Good, accomplished and virtuous beyond appreciating. Naturally this condition poses the question that has worried all of us at some time or another, perhaps even Eve herself: is Paradise suffocating?

Polly's fall from grace is the occasion for her seeing, at last, the mixed blessing, but blessings nonetheless, of her tribe. "Family life is deflective: it gives everybody something to do. It absorbs sadness and sops up loneliness. It provides work, company, and entertainment. It makes tasks for idle hands and allows an anxious spirit to hide in its capacious bosom. With no one around her, Polly felt as if she had slipped out of earth orbit."

The possibility that the complacence of her family has pushed her into Lincoln's bed is tested and found wanting. To her plaintive, "I don't want to be the best anymore," her adoring husband, Henry, responds, "You can't help it, it is not something you do. It's something you are." The inevitability of Polly's virtue is like Iris Murdoch's "sovereignty of good"—"something of which saints speak and which any artist will readily understand. The idea of a patient, loving regard, directed upon a person, a thing, a situation, presents the will not as unimpeded movement but as something very much like 'obedience.'"

The ever-tasteful Sturm und Drang of the plot resolved—although her moral dilemma is not; Lincoln remains her lover—Polly sits at Sunday breakfast:

This was her family, her tribe, her flesh. She felt not forced to love them, or condemned to be angry at them, but as if she were merely seeing them. Her place at this table was optional—she did not have to be there if she did not want to. But she did want to.

And later; "Her heart was full of love—for Henry, for Lincoln, for her brother and sister-in-law and parents and for her children." That is not a satisfactory ending, too much having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too. But it is very Solo-Miller. So the epigraph to Family Happiness must serve as its conclusion: "God setteth the solitary in families; He bringeth out those which are bound with chains; but the rebellious live in a dry land" (Psalm 68:6).

Principal Works

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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

Robb Forman Drew (review date 13 April 1986)

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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 whatsoever. There are really no consequences at all other than the creation of a sweetly isolated slice of memory to be shared only by the two people involved.

Another Marvelous Thing is a collection of eight stories that tells the tale from beginning to end of an affair between a determinedly tough-minded young woman, Josephine (Billy) Delielle, and an unabashedly sentimental older man, Francis Clemens, called Frank only by his sharp-tongued and irreverent mistress.

In the story "Frank and Billy," Francis ruminates that

Having a love affair … was not unlike being the co-governor of a tiny, private kingdom in some remote country with only two inhabitants—you and the other co-governor. This kingdom had flora and fauna, a national bird, language, reference, conceit, a national anthem … cheers, songs, and gestures. It also had national censorship—the taboo subjects are taboo. The idea that one of the co-governors has a life outside the kingdom always brings pain. For example, the afternoon Francis's eye fell on a thick air letter in an elderly hand. When pressed, Billy turned red and explained that for many years she had been having a correspondence with a retired schoolteacher in the town of Northleach whom she had met during one of her research periods in the Cotswolds…. This information left Francis speechless, like a blow to the stomach with a flat object. The moment he stepped out of her house her life without him began. Of course, the same could be said of him. What richness! what privacy! what sadness!

It's the sadness that we're not so sure about, although we're certainly willing to grant this couple their own pale and wistful melancholy, around which each of these stories is shaped. Their gentle mournfulness stems from the idea of the limits of their association, the irrefutable notion that each one has scant access to the other's life. But it is hard for the reader to grant them real sorrow; these two are the possessors of inordinately lucky lives, and they themselves have only the mildest and most ordinary of regrets. But I think Laurie Colwin knows exactly what she's about. After all, it is Francis, not necessarily the author, who infers sorrow from his condition, and she has effectively made him a rather touching character; he is a man who is nostalgic for his past before it is even concluded.

Throughout the book, and made clear in each story, is the understanding that Billy loves her husband, Grey, and that Francis is at least fond of his wife, Vera, although for all her virtues she seems curiously unappealing. In the first story in this collection, "My Mistress," Francis sums Billy up.

I know how she contrasts to my wife: my wife is affable, full of conversation, loves a dinner party, and is interested in clothes, food, home decor, and the issues of the day. She loves to entertain, is sought out in times of crisis by her numerous friends, and has a kind and original word for everyone. She is methodical, hard-working, and does not fall asleep in restaurants.

Billy, as it turns out, is none of these things and can claim not one of these attributes. What's more, she begrudges Francis every ounce of affection she feels for him. Only Laurie Colwin could make us like her, because Billy is smart and witty and spunky and it makes her feel a little bad to be in love with Francis and her husband at the same time. Billy's husband is a far more sympathetic character than Francis's wife, and so it is especially reassuring to the reader that Billy knows it will be difficult for her to carry on this affair without the possibility of a resolution. Francis, on the other hand, likes the romance so well that he is indifferent, if not opposed, to any final outcome. The tension between them provided by this difference of opinion is the line most clearly drawn through all these stories.

The stories in this slim volume are connected, and they often relay the same event from different perspectives, but each one is complete unto itself, and because of the frequent repetition of information, the book does not profit from being read straight through as if it were a novel. Besides, a great deal of the pleasure a reader derives from any of Laurie Colwin's work—novels such as Happy All the Time and story collections like The Lone Pilgrim—is a result of her fine craftsmanship, and it has always seemed to me that the short story is her strong suit. She understands its shape so well that she sees to it each one is a whole meal, not one course of a larger menu. These should be read one at a time, perhaps just before bed as a respite from an especially trying day.

A writer of Laurie Colwin's sensibility is surely familiar with both joy and tragedy of one kind or another, but Another Marvelous Thing does not attempt to investigate either one; these stories do not resonate with any strong emotion. The author 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.

Further Reading

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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." Los Angeles Times Book Review (6 May 1990): 3, 18.

Summarizes the plot of Goodbye without Leaving.

Olshan, Joseph. "I Was a White Shakette." New York Times Book Review (13 May 1990): 12.

Praises the style of Goodbye without Leaving, asserting that Colwin "is able to lend a comic voice to some rumbling social issues that would probably drown out a more conventional writer."

Thorne, John. "A Friend Indeed." Book World—The Washington Post 50, No. 50 (11 December 1988): 10.

Positive assessment of Home Cooking.

Yardley, Jonathan. "Anna Karenina Comes to Manhattan." Book World—The Washington Post 12, No. 37 (12 September 1982): 3, 8.

Laudatory review of Family Happiness.

Martha Southgate (review date 17 January 1989)

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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 comparison, though overstated, is not entirely wrong. Her talent is the main reason that her latest, Home Cooking, a collection of essays about food, is so puzzling and disappointing.

Colwin clearly loves to cook and she communicates that enthusiasm even to this hardened kitchen avoider. The recipes sound delicious, but Colwin seems to have become a happy prisoner of her upper-middle-class milieu, rarely looking beyond the abundance that surrounds her or even examining it critically. Here's a sample, from "How to Fry Chicken": "The lady who taught my sister and me, a black woman who cooked for us in Philadelphia, was of course the apotheosis: no one will ever be fit to touch the top of her chicken fryer." Why the "of course"? Is there some reason that a black domestic should have the edge in chicken frying? Colwin's editor should have had a little talk with her about the indigestible assumptions in this homey collection. They remove the charm from funny descriptions such as this one: "I have had all kinds of nasty fried chicken served to me, usually with great flourish: crisp little baby shoes or hockey pucks turned out by electric frying machines with names such as Little Fry Guy."

Colwin also misses the larger reason that people write about food: to take a look at the culture that's eating and see what lessons can be learned from the way we eat. She ignores this mission at her peril—the only culture she ends up examining is the upper-middle-class dinner party. Writing about her own life and friends allows Colwin to let all her worst tendencies run rampant, and doesn't leave much room for her natural good humor or her talent for observing men and women. She's a writer who needs to look beyond herself to be at her most interesting. That doesn't happen in this lightweight blend of recipes and anecdotes. They're not enough to satisfy a reader hungry for some real food for thought.

Jeanne Schinto (review date Spring 1990)

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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 length of one volume at least, though she can't suppress her skill as a writer of imaginative prose while doing so. From her chapter on flank steak: "My introduction to flank steak was a dreary one. I was invited for supper by a colleague who told me she was no cook, but that flank steak, according to the recipe of her sainted grandmother, was her one dish. Because I like to hang around in the kitchens of others, I watched while my colleague took a flat, blade-shaped piece of meat which she then rolled up and tied, like an old carpet."

Nor does this writer's passion for food come to us out of the blue, as did James M. Cain's recipes and food writing, for which, according to his biographer Roy Hoopes, he was perpetually trying to get assignments. Colwin's cookbook isn't out of character, because, unlike Cain's fiction, her other books are often illuminating about the symbolic roles that food and cooking play in modern life, particularly in the lives of women.

In Another Marvelous Thing, Colwin's female protagonist, nicknamed Billy, who is having an affair with Francis, is "indifferent" to food. "She hates to cook and will never present [Francis] with an interesting post-coital snack." Instead, they smear peanut butter on stale water crackers: "They were both ravenous and almost anything would have done." At a dinner party Billy gave, "it was clear that cooking bothered her." Vera, Francis's wife, on the other hand, is "an ace cook" who has been trained at a cooking school in France. Even so, she and Francis have a house-keeper who is "a marvelous cook." Vera does it only for fun.

In Family Happiness, dining-table scenes form a continuous series of tableaux, because, unlike many other modern American families, the extended family portrayed here still eats together regularly—Sunday brunch, for example, is a long-standing tradition. Polly Solo-Miller Demarest, a lawyer's wife who is having an affair with a painter, is the book's main character; at her peak moment of emotional distress—unable to decide between husband or lover—she has an epiphany in a supermarket. She sees a couple of teenagers buying chocolate and bananas with which to make a pudding and "felt as if she had been pierced with knives, as if the boy and girl had been sent to rub her nose in the face of young married love, full of silliness and improvised meals."

Polly … does not make a habit of shopping in supermarkets. "There were people who actually bought their vegetables at the supermarket—Polly did not believe that anything in a supermarket could really be fresh…. Shopping in a supermarket was a sign of bad housekeeping. How could these people bring themselves to admit their flaws publicly?" Of course, Polly's whole life, up until that moment, has been a public performance.

Readers of Home Cooking know that Colwin, unlike Billy, loves food. Readers also know that Colwin loves words as much as food—even preferring the bread-baking lessons of Elizabeth David's English Bread and Yeast Cookery to those of a friend. Still, she doesn't want people to simply read her cookbook. Her ingredients and directions make it plain that her book is meant for real people who shop in supermarkets and—unlike angels, anorexics, or the dead—really do need to eat.

Michiko Kakutani (review date 4 May 1990)

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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 am."

Geraldine's husband is her "Boy Scout from Mars," her "weirdo from Normalsville, who knew how to maneuver in the world," "the golden mean," who "managed to do good and make money at the same time."

Her best friend, Mary, is her "moral beacon."

Her lover, Leo, is "a school" who would turn her "into Hannah Arendt," someone who is "more like a destination than a person."

When we first meet Geraldine, she has just traded in her identity as a graduate student in English at the University of Chicago to join Ruby Shakely and the Shakettes—a Tina Turner-like group that's touring small towns around the country. Geraldine spends a lot of time on the tour bus "blowing reefer and playing cards," while her friends from school pursue more conventional lives: "getting married, having babies, being promoted, becoming White House Fellows or junior partners in their law firms."

Actually, a similarly conventional life is in store for Geraldine. She meets a lawyer named Jonathan, quits the Shakettes, and after much agonizing is married and has a baby. Her family and Jonathan's family get along beautifully, no doubt because they share (like so many earlier Colwin characters) identical tastes and backgrounds. Geraldine's mother is a children's book illustrator and the head of a county art center; Jonathan's mother is on a local library committee and gives an annual cocktail party that "was as regular an event as the bake sale, the Memorial Day parade or the Volunteer Fire Department chicken fry."

In time, Geraldine takes a job as a researcher at the Race Music Foundation in Harlem—an obscure organization devoted to preserving the work of early black musicians. She and Jonathan move to a bigger apartment in some unidentified but gentrified neighborhood in Manhattan, and they go to dinner parties where Geraldine attacks the liberal hypocrisies of the other guests.

They wore snappy clothes and owned small European cars. They worked hard and took interesting vacations in wilderness areas. They were healthy and hale and red-cheeked and they had never spent a minute of their lives worried about the essentials. The essentials had all been taken care of. Instead they had worried about grades, getting into college, law school. They worried when their cars didn't work and when cholera broke out in the some part of the world they had an impulse to go touring in. Later they had children and worried about early childhood development, what schools to send their children to. When they got together they talked about cooking equipment, and skiing, and gossiped about mutual friends. I was a total misfit.

It doesn't take the reader long to discover that Geraldine isn't a misfit at all; she only thinks she is. Like the people she says she loathes, she leads a privileged existence in which the essentials are happily taken for granted. Her marriage is pleasant and fulfilling. Her child is healthy and bright. She and Jonathan have no economic worries, no worries about their families, their jobs or their futures. Even her love affair with Leo is completely painless, devoid of guilt, conflict or emotional trauma of any sort. While unsatisfactory dinner party conversations are enough to elicit a litany of complaints, Geraldine never seriously assesses her life or her values, never achieves anything even approaching self-knowledge.

Indeed, the reader quickly begins to suspect that Geraldine is one of those people who are constantly inventing things to worry about to pass the time. Although she has wanted to be a rock-and-roll singer all her life, she worries, once she's got a job as a Shakette, that it's not a proper lifetime occupation. Although she's madly in love with Jonathan, she worries that marriage is incompatible with her career. Although she says she loves being a mother, she worries that people will look down on her for not having a high-powered job. It never seems to occur to her that being a wife and mother doesn't preclude being a singer.

To make matters worse, Geraldine is constantly turning her identity crises into annoying little aphorisms: "To be effortlessly yourself is a blessing, an ambrosia. It is like a few tiny little puffs of opium, which lift you ever so slightly off the hard surface of the world." Or: "I mean, people who really do things have professions, and vocations. Maybe I'm one of those meandering types and being in the music business was a form of meandering."

When Ms. Colwin steps away from Geraldine and her complacent, yuppified world, she succeeds in putting her eye for sociological detail to better use. Ruby Shakeley and some of Geraldine's other music-business friends are delineated briskly with a couple of lines of description, a couple of phrases of telling dialogue; and the European émigrés she later meets in New York are also observantly defined. Unfortunately, these characters are no compensation, in the end, for Geraldine's self-absorption, her cute, self-conscious whining.

Lorraine E. McCormack (review date Winter 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1022

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 rhythm and Janis Joplin on Prozac.

Disgusted with her dissertation and in love with rhythm and blues, Geraldine leaves the University of Chicago to tour as a back-up singer to black rock star Ruby Shakely. Being a Shakette seems to Geraldine the most authentic thing she's ever done; criss-crossing the country in a marijuana-fogged tour bus, dressed in day-glow fringe, living her dream. "Yes, I was myself. I was not black, I was not from the South, I was not funky…. I was not a Ph.D. candidate and I didn't care. I was a Shakette, and I knew my time had come."

Geraldine loves her two years on the road, but the group's camaraderie points up her feelings of rootlessness:

Ethnic identity was slightly vulgar in my mother's eyes, or, at best, a kind of colorful peasant tradition. My father's mother had been a Jew from an old family that had intermarried until there was nothing much of anything left except a tree at Christmas time … a Judaism so reformed that it was indistinguishable from, say, the Girl Scouts.

Colwin surrounds Geraldine with a cast of characters who challenge her definition of herself every day. To Geraldine's amazement, almost to her dismay, her husband accepts her exactly as she is, a middle-class matron on the outside and a beatnik iconoclast on the inside. It is Johnny who validates the success of her marginal life style: "You can go to a dinner party and not lose your essential self. You can be true to your school and still make normal conversation. You can act like a regular person and still boogie in your soul."

Even after her marriage, Geraldine's truest feeling of connection in life comes from her encyclopedic collection of 45 rpm vinyl pressings of early rock and rollers. Her method of confronting any particularly stressful life situation is to spend several days prone, humming along to the obscure flip sides of ancient chart busters. This is the perfect therapy for a self-described wandering Jew and former Shakette, and for a while it dispells her feeling of being ethnically orphaned.

Geraldine bemoans her shallow roots to friends whom she sees as having primal connections to life that she doesn't have: black musicians, contemplative Catholics, Holocaust survivors. Each of them tries to set her straight. Unconvinced by their protests and intrigued by their legacies, Geraldine becomes the caretaker of other people's histories. As a researcher for the Race Music Foundation, she catalogues female blues singers of the twenties and thirties. One day a sound engineer called The Bopper plays Geraldine a tape of her own voice, a solo from her Shakette days. She is struck by the clarity and control in her voice, for these are qualities that seem missing from the rest of her life. The feelings her song expresses are heart-felt, but she doesn't feel she owns the music:

"Let's make a million dollars. Let's record you singing some of those groovy old blues songs you catalogued. It'll be our big break."

"I'm not a blues singer," I said. "Going on tour was a kind of lucky fluke. I went for the music, not to have a career. I'm not a singer…. I'm very flattered, Bopper, really I am," I said. "I just can't do it. I love this music with all my heart but I don't honestly believe it's mine to sing."

When Colwin's style flourishes, her characters reveal themselves in dialogue that makes you laugh out loud. Their exchanges are fresh and colorful, with none of the formulaic, sound-bite patter that leaks out of TV onto the page these days. Often the characters who are most clearly drawn get the least physical description, like Geraldine's friend "The Smoking Poet." The technique is so effective in the first two-thirds of the book that we feel rather distracted by the excessive physical descriptions of the characters who appear in the offices of the Hansonia Society, where Geraldine works as a secretary. This group of music preservationists are immigrants from Eastern Europe, and for a while the story proceeds as though Geraldine has stepped into a casting call for Grand Hotel, with everyone trailing silk scarves and brushing cigarette ash from their furs.

It is in the ethnic enclave of the Hansonia Society that Geraldine's longings for connections are nurtured, and she begins to sense her place in the grand scheme of things. She still sings her baby to sleep with "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman," but she feels comfortable adding a German Jewish lullaby now and then.

I found it easy to relate to Geraldine's feelings about music she could love but not really own. The memory I have of my parents swaying and beaming to "Moonlight Serenade" by Benny Goodman is certainly more dignified than the image I have of me at their age creaking my rocker to "Beast of Burden" by the Rolling Stones, but there you are. Instinct and honor keep you true to your school, and it was instinct and honor that drove Geraldine out of the University of Chicago and into the college of rock-and-roll knowledge, where surely she rated a full professorship. Her expertise is fun for the reader at first, but it gets frustrating not knowing which of the musical allusions are for real and which are made up: Brenda and the Tabulations, sure, but Baby Jean and the Jerelles? Oh well, maybe they were before my time; now there's a comforting thought.

Amy Richlin (essay date Spring-Summer 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7248

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

Laurie Colwin occupies an odd position among American fiction writers. Like Ellen Gilchrist, she takes as her subject romantic love; like Alice Adams, she keeps to upper-class people located in comfortable places. Her prose is both elegant and witty, and at first her work gives the appearance of light fiction, no more. Yet something more seems to be going on. A glance over past reviews of her work finds uneasiness among the critics; one remarked that the depiction of so much easy happiness left the reader feeling vaguely unhappy. Has this been intentional all along? In her latest novel, Goodbye Without Leaving, is Colwin finally tipping part of her hand?

Complex currents of guilt beset the critical reader's pleasure in Colwin's text. We expect serious fiction to be openly class-conscious; the socially conscientious reader, however bourgeois, is looking for stories that at least problematize the bourgeois experience, or, even better, locate themselves entirely outside it. And we have become accustomed, these days, to a minimalist style that eschews the figures of rhetoric, describing bleak scenes in bleak sentences. It is ironic that Colwin's protagonists—academics, artists, products of good schools—are also the kind of women who read her books; yet these women, reading Colwin, meet guilt on all sides, as if they were eating chocolate instead of sprouts. The style is delicious, the settings are pleasant, the people are totally recognizable. These are stories about people you know. And, for the heterosexual reader, the assessments of heterosexual romance are equally recognizable, formulations that can be taken home and used; these are stories about yourself. How can this be great art?

Recent work on the romance has broached the possibility that even the popular fiction of women may be worth taking seriously. The fact that an author's work is restricted in setting, that it is pleasurable to read, even that it is comic, need not banish it from the critic's consideration. Moreover, a set of interrelated problems in Colwin's work suggests to me that she is producing more than a sort of fiction version of The Preppy Handbook (another product of a nice Jewish girl among WASPs). In Goodbye Without Leaving, this set of problems is writ large. First, the heroine is an assimilated Jew struggling to find her cultural identity; previous Colwin heroines have been happy being assimilated. But, where Colwin now problematizes happiness and Jewishness, she has always problematized happiness before; romance for her is not easy, however beautiful it may be; and she has often mediated on the artificiality of beauty itself. Her work is full of the pleasure of the romance plot, but it is also posted with signs calling this pleasure into question.

I write this as Colwin's ideal reader: a nice assimilated Jewish girl with a nice academic job and a lot of nice friends who went to good schools, always in and out of love. I would like to believe that the pleasure I have in Colwin's texts tallies with some kind of artistic merit, and I'm betting on the connections I've sketched above. I'll try to convince you, and myself at the same time, for the truth is that the whole thing makes me feel guilty. But maybe that just jibes with the widespread critical uneasiness I noted above; we all know we're not supposed to be happy all the time. And maybe that's the point.

Colwin's writing has always been marked by a high degree of wish-fulfillment in the plot line, and Goodbye Without Leaving must be the most extreme example. The heroine, Geraldine Coleshares, from a cultured and assimilated Jewish family, starts out as a bored graduate student in English literature at the University of Chicago, whose true passion is for black rock and roll. She haunts the (mostly black) clubs of Chicago, and shortly finds herself as a backup singer and dancer for Vernon and Ruby Shakely—as "the white Shakette." Her mentor gets her her first job with the introduction, "Here's a boss white chick who knows all your routines and she can move." Talk about bald-faced fantasy!

The two years that Geraldine goes on to spend touring with Vernon and Ruby prove to be the high point of her life; everything that follows is anticlimactic. Subsequent events include her marriage to a nice young lawyer from an assimilated Jewish family (Southern), who also loves rock and roll; the birth of their son, Little Franklin; a job at the Race Music Foundation, where Geraldine does research on female blues singers; and a job at the Hansonia Society, where Geraldine does further research, this time on the musicological endeavors of two Austrian Jewish expatriates who collected black music in the American South in the 1930's. Here she has the occasion to meet many Holocaust survivors, with one of whom she has an affair. But the significant thing about this final part of the book is that she begins to recover her roots, signs up for Hebrew lessons, and conducts her first Seder. Her cultural rootlessness has been a theme throughout the book; both as an American among Europeans and as an assimilated Jew among Christians, she feels a deep lack.

The experienced Colwin reader instantly recognizes many of the features of this book: 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. It seems worth considering here how these elements are interrelated and how they are connected with the Jewish question.

An old boyfriend of mine, a Northfield Mt. Hermon graduate then rowing on the Yale crew, used to describe himself as a WASH—a White Anglo-Saxon Hebrew. This is the culture in which Laurie Colwin has always set her work, and Goodbye Without Leaving is no exception. What is exceptional here is that, for the first time, she has written about Jewish assimilation as a problem rather than as an enviable blessing.

Geraldine Coleshares takes her place among a whole parade of similar Colwin protagonists. First to appear is Amelia ("Misty") Berkowitz, in two stories in Passion and Affect that form the basis for the novel Happy All The Time. The difference in cultural background between Misty and her beau, Vincent Cardworthy, is not made much of in the stories, but it looms in the novel, and the terms of the problem are set already in the stories: not just the problem of being an assimilated Jew, but the problem of being an assimilated Jewish young woman who loves and/or marries an upper-class WASP young man. Misty has colleagues already in Passion and Affect: probably Mary Leibnitz, who, in "Animal Behavior," falls in love with Raiford Phelps, known as Roddy; probably Jane Catherine Jacoby, in "Imelda," who (more exotically) has a boyfriend named Tito Ricardo-Ruiz, "an upper-class Argentinian whose father was with the embassy."

A more extreme example is the heroine of Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object—"the little Marcus girl, Elizabeth Olive, nicknamed Olly" (many Colwin characters have prep-style nicknames). Olly marries into a family of New England WASPs right out of John P. Marquand; she dispenses with this problem early in the story: "my mother wondered if the Baxes would mind having Jews in the family, but they didn't care one way or the other." Misty, Mary, Jane Catherine, and Olly are joined in The Lone Pilgrim by Jane Mayer ("The Boyish Lover"), Elizabeth Leopold ("An Old-Fashioned Story"), Georgia Levy ("Delia's Father"), Rachel Manheim ("The Smile Beneath the Smile"), and Polly Solo-Miller ("Family Happiness"), who is also the protagonist of the novel Family Happiness. Rachel has her heart broken by a wealthy mathematician named Andrew Dilks. The Manhattan schoolgirl Georgia Levy describes her culture: "We came from good Jewish and Episcopalian families, and we grew up all alike" (The Lone Pilgrim).

The pleasure-loving English professor Jane Mayer has her heart broken by a physics professor named Arthur Corthauld Spaacks, known as Cordy, who comes from a wealthy but frozen New England WASP family, and the problem the story raises is precisely that of the clash between their cultures:

The Mayers were a family of watered-down German and Dutch Jews who had once had a lot of money. Now they had things. They had Persian rugs, English silver, Limoges plates, and Meissen soup tureens. It was from Cordy that Jane learned the lesson so valuable to the haute bourgeoisie: that some people have a good deal of money and almost nothing else.

The things that the Mayers have go along with an ability to take pleasure in life; Cordy takes pleasure in depriving himself of good things, both material and spiritual (i.e., love). It is strongly suggested here that such an attitude is culturally determined; Jane yearns for Cordy nonetheless.

The consummate description of a Colwin heroine's family is that of Polly Solo-Miller. Here they are in the story "Family Happiness".

They gathered … on New Year's Day, on Christmas Eve as well as Easter Sunday. They were an old, old Jewish family of the sort that is more identifiably old American than Jewish. They gathered at Passover but not at Chanukah, and they went to synagogue twice a year on the two High Holy days. On Yom Kippur they did not fast but had family lunch in the afternoon. [Oy.]

In the novel, this is modified startlingly:

Both [Polly's parents] were of old, old Jewish families, the sort that are more identifiably old American than Jewish. Solo-Millers and Hendrickses had come from Holland via Spain before the American Revolution, which they had either taken part in or helped to raise money for. (Family Happiness)

Presumably Polly belongs to the D.A.R.

There is an insistence throughout on two things: first, the identity in class status between the Jewish women's families and the WASP families into which they travel. Why make the Solo-Millers Jewish at all? Maybe that's just who Colwin writes about, as Hemingway wrote about white boys from the Midwest. But there does seem to be a subliminal voice here, and what it seems to be saying is, "See? There are Jews who don't look like Jews at all." Second, and connected: the non-problematic nature of the alliances between Jews and WASPs. Anti-Semitism just does not exist in these stories; this is all the more ironic considering that Colwin has chosen to write about one culture for which the exclusion of Jews has often been self-defining.

It is not that Colwin never recognizes the problem; it lurks in the background of Happy All the Time. Misty fights off Vincent's declarations of love, suggesting he might be happier with "someone who knows her way around a sailboat."

"And besides that, there's the Jewish question," said Misty. "Oh, that," said Vincent. "I don't notice either of us being religious. Besides, my Aunt Marcia is Jewish. She married Uncle Walter. She's everybody's favorite relative. What's the big deal?"

Vincent's turns out to be the correct reading of the situation; everything works out perfectly, and Aunt Marcia sends them a Haggadah as a wedding present. But throughout the book, Misty remains pessimistic:

In the real world, Misty knew, people like Walter Cardworthy and Fritz Berkowitz waged social warfare. In the real world, when people like Misty and Vincent got married their parents were horrified and tried to stop the wedding…. Living with Vincent made Misty realize that she had spent a good deal of her life ready to ward off some terrible low blow.

The worst the text presents her with is a woman who knows her way around a sailboat, who makes her jealous: "Misty wore on her face an expression that Vincent called 'the only Jew at the dinner table look.'"

Yet Misty is hardly a Chassid. Like the other Colwin heroines, she is a Jew who resembles a familiar WASP type, her ancestors having been homesteaders rather than colonial fund-raisers. Her great-grandfather emigrated from Russia and wound up with a dairy farm in Medicine Stone, Wisconsin, and "[her] father and her Uncle Bernie were grandsons of the pioneers." Misty's family leans left and her father is a labor lawyer, but he gets along fine with Vincent's father, of Petrie, Connecticut—i.e., the Berkowitzes are Jewish, but they fit in. It thus jars slightly when we read that "Uncle Bernie said that when he wrote his autobiography he would call it Jew Boy of the Prairie." Somehow, despite all the happy assimilation, Misty feels alone at the dinner table as Uncle Bernie was alone on the prairie. Both feelings are turned into jokes, but persist nonetheless.

It is in this context (extreme but faintly uneasy assimilation) that we arrive at Goodbye Without Leaving and read Geraldine's explanation of why hymn singing always makes her cry:

My parents were relentlessly secular. They believed that to be American was quite enough. Ethnic identity was slightly vulgar in my mother's eyes, or, at best, a kind of colorful peasant tradition. I had no church to go to. My father's mother had been a Jew from an old family that had intermarried until there was nothing much of anything left except a tree at Christmas time. We had some aunts on my mother's side—this side was of a Judaism so reformed that it was indistinguishable from, say, the Girl Scouts—who held the traditional Passover meal, but no one in living memory celebrated anything silly like Hanukkah. On the High Holy Days my mother dragged my father off to the local reformed synagogue, where the rabbi had a phony English accent and repeatedly intoned in his sermons that Jews were really nothing more than good Americans.

The attitude of Geraldine's mother, and of the rabbi, seems not much different from that of Colwin's own narrative voice in her earlier work, and is at bottom internalized anti-Semitism—which Geraldine here rejects. Can she turn a reclamation of Judaism for herself into a positive version of her endless longing for a lost past? Can she use it to claim a place at the dinner table? Can she find true happiness?

The problem of happiness and change is a leitmotif in Colwin's work. It shows up even in her titles—Family Happiness, Happy All the Time; these, especially the second, have always given me pause for thought. Is it possible to be happy all the time? This isn't really such a dumb question; this is the story of Solon and Croesus as told by Croesus. Colwin's characters often in fact are not happy, but angst-ridden, and this is certainly true of Geraldine Coleshares, whose two years of perfect happiness as a Shakette seem to have made it impossible for her ever to be truly happy again. The contrast between the external circumstances of Geraldine and the rest, and their internal misery, is striking. It is as if Colwin were running a controlled experiment: Iet all circumstances except X be perfect—then what happens?

Again, it is Happy All the Time that provides the most clues to what is going on, and strongly suggests a tie between the Jewish question and the problem of happiness:

"Life is never smooth to the great-granddaughter of tin peddlers who were kicked out of Russia," said Misty. "It's no accident that all my family is in one embattled profession or another. We're just waiting for the Cossacks to come back. When the Cossacks come to Connecticut, you'll understand."

Suddenly we are on familiar ground—Woody Allen territory. Maybe the issue is not (just) whether anyone can be happy, but whether a Jew can be happy, and where. The horrible WASP family dinner in Annie Hall rises before our eyes.

Colwin's characters stage an endless debate on the question of whether happiness is possible, for whom, for how long. Pairs of characters square off; Happy All the Time in fact concerns two pairs, Misty (pessimist) vs. Vincent (optimist), plus Guido, Vincent's cousin (pessimist) vs. his wife Holly (a kind of Zen optimist). The book ends with this well-balanced quadrille toasting "a truly wonderful life"; but it is hard for the reader not to remember Misty's conviction that a blow may fall. In "A Mythological Subject," in The Lone Pilgrim, the narrator (a pragmatic optimist) observes her puritanical cousin, the ironically-named Nellie Felix. Some characters need no interlocutor: Roddy Phelps in "Animal Behavior" breaks Mary Leibnitz' heart just because it's time for him to do it; Max Waltzer, in the Cheeveresque "The Water Rats" (Passion and Affect) sinks into madness as he broods over the perfection of his family life, and begins to lose it by holding it too tightly.

One of the main things that blocks Geraldine's happiness is a kind of nostalgia; for other Colwin characters, it works both over time and over the space between people, as with lovers who begrudge their beloveds the separation of sleep and dreams. Billy in "Sentimental Memory" (The Lone Pilgrim) says to the narrator: "I hate it that we live from one minute to the next. I want to keep everything. I don't want the minutes to fly away. I want to keep every second intact in my mind." The two schoolgirls in "Imelda" muse over the fact that their present will one day be their past; Jane Catherine differentiates herself from her boyfriend on this issue:

"… He doesn't have any sentimental memory. When I think that a day is over and will never repeat, I get all ropy inside, but Tito thinks that life is a string that pulls you along." (Passion and Affect)

These themes figure prominently in Goodbye Without Leaving, the title of which encapsulates them. Geraldine is caught up in a literal nostalgia—a longing for return home; but it is compounded by her feeling that she has no home. She feels out of place in graduate school; while on tour as the white Shakette, she develops a crush on one of the black musicians, Doo-Wah Banks, who kindly turns her down; she rejects her parents; she fights off her marriage, drags her heels over having a wedding, moving to a grown-up apartment, having a baby. She feels most out of place at the dinners of her husband's law-firm friends—now not the only Jew but the only bopper at the dinner table. She cannot think of a career for herself (although, a true Colwin heroine, she lucks into two perfect jobs with a total of three contacts), and refuses all encouragement to return to singing, for which she is assured on all sides she has great talent. One reason that she gives is that she agrees with her boss at the Race Music Foundation that black music should not be co-opted by white singers: "I love this music with all my heart but I don't honestly believe it's mine to sing." She finds her first happiness after leaving the tour with her job there in Harlem, where she is both doing something she loves and also marginal; marginality seems to be her true metier.

This shows up most painfully in her longing for her own past, both personal and cultural. When she first meets Johnny, she says she will always be a Shakette. "Even when you're fifty?" he asks her. "I don't like to think about the future," she replies. (She here echoes an earlier Colwin heroine, Ann Speizer in "The Achieve of, the Mastery of the Thing," who has a grim vision of herself as a fifty-year-old pothead.) Married to Johnny and musing over the old days, she reflects that the days of the girl groups are over: "Like an exile, I knew that I could never return to the home of my childhood." She explains to Johnny that the loss of her old self is just like the loss she feels in watching their baby turn into a little boy. But it also resembles her sense of lost culture: "I'm nothing," she says to Doo-Wah, "I'm a lapsed Jew from an assimilated family. I don't belong anywhere." As she begins her quest to practice as a Jew, she feels "spiritual longings as well as some desire for a historical context." At the Hansonia Society, she likens her new co-workers to the blacks at the Race Music Foundation: "They were all from a world I had never known and to which I had only the most minimal access." And when she finally finds her niche at the Hansonia Society, she measures her own sense of exile against the experience of real refugees; she calls her lover Leo Rhinehart "the man from Western Civ."—"He would kiss me and I would turn into Hannah Arendt."

This longing for what you cannot have lies at the center of everything for Colwin: romantic love, of which adultery is thus the epitome; life, which moves us inexorably away from the golden present. In Happy All the Time, Guido loves Holly and constantly cannot have her; her periodic retreats are only a physical expression of the true relationship between them. Two of the men in The Lone Pilgrim—Cordy Spaacks of "The Boyish Lover" and Andrew Dilks of "The Smile Beneath the Smile"—take pleasure in depriving themselves of what they love, while their hedonistic beloveds suffer. Rachel recites "They flee from me, that sometime did me seek" to Andrew. This poignantly beautiful mechanics seems, in Colwin, also to underlie difference itself: man vs. woman, and (implicitly) Jew vs. WASP, black vs. white.

The fact that romantic love is Colwin's subject is almost too obvious to mention, and yet the structure of romantic love—yearning, almost incapable of satisfaction—is a perfect example of Colwin's mechanics. Polly Rice, in "The Lone Pilgrim," draws her illustrations for a deluxe edition of The Art of Courtly Love while longing for a lost lover who is far away in Greenland. An astronomer, he has a galaxy named after him, and she periodically looks up at the stars to try to spot it (she cannot). She works to the accompaniment of the Everly Brothers singing "Sleepless Nights," and a record of country hymns that includes one called "The Lone Pilgrim," in which a dead man sends a message to his loved ones. This overdetermined heap of separations is typical of Colwin's stories; when Geraldine in Goodbye Without Leaving longs for her own youth, the glory days of rock and roll, the babyhood of her little boy, a black man, a European culture she has never known, a sense of purpose in life, and religious faith, her yearning is the helpless longing familiar from Colwin's earlier work.

It is in this context that we can locate Colwin's obsession with adultery. Joyce Carol Oates, in a review of The Lone Pilgrim, singled out as odd what must be one of Colwin's most striking formulations of her creed: "falling in love outside of marriage is the ultimate and every other gesture is its shadow" (from "A Mythological Subject"). Adulterous love recurs throughout Colwin's work: it is the main subject of Family Happiness (which we thus see to be ironically named) and of Another Marvelous Thing, while in Shine On Olly first has an affair with her deceased husband's brother and then cheats on him with a married cellist. Adultery crops up in "The Elite Viewer" and in "Children, Dogs, and Desperate Men" (Passion and Affect), and in "Sentimental Memory," "Intimacy," "Delia's Father," "A Mythological Subject," and "Family Happiness" (The Lone Pilgrim). In most of these cases, the extramarital passion acts to confirm the strength of the couple's marriage, provides a deeper love unavailable within the marriage without threatening the marriage or degrading it, and/or simply offers another pleasure in life's buffet. Geraldine's perfunctory affair with Leo in Goodbye Without Leaving is Colwin's nod to a habit she seems to be leaving behind—obligatory adultery.

But why does she call love outside marriage "the ultimate"? Colwin has a penchant for presenting her characters with significantly-titled books; we recall that Polly Rice, of the title story in The Lone Pilgrim, was illustrating The Art of Courtly Love (a "deluxe edition," mind you). And adultery is the sine qua non of courtly love—a love also set among lords and ladies, people with fancy manners. So Colwin is tapping into a traditional connection between class, behavior, and emotion. It suits her own themes, though; love without marriage provides the best example of love with separation. Even when the love is consummated, honorable lovers cannot be truly happy.

The anguish of such a lover is the theme of "A Mythological Subject," which ends with the narrator watching her troubled cousin sleep:

What a pleasant circumstance to sit in a warm, comfortable room on an icy winter's day and contemplate someone you love whose life has always been of the greatest interest to you. Procris in the painting [of Procris slain by Cephalus] is half naked, but Nellie looked just as vulnerable. It would be exceedingly interesting to see what happened to her, but then she had always been a pleasure to watch. (The Lone Pilgrim)

This passage combines Colwin's most important themes. The opening words, "What a pleasant circumstance," surely call into question the meaning of "pleasant." The narrator is Nellie's friend, yet she watches her with an almost cruel detachment. The distance between the two of them is like the distance between the warm room and the ice outside. The narrator (as now and again happens in Colwin) is consciously enjoying turning a lover into a work of art, in this case a dead woman in a painting. It seems to me to be at least possible that the dislocation of the assimilated Jew is the founding paradigm for the painful distance between the unnamed narrator and Nellie Felix.

One thing that makes Colwin's texts interesting is the sort of self-consciousness manifested by the passage just quoted. Her texts are about the intersection of pleasure with romance, and comment as they go on the aesthetic satisfaction of romantic pain—the beauty of longing. The Lone Pilgrim contains three brilliant stories on this theme: "A Girl Skating," a meditation on the male gaze from the point of view of its object; "A Mythological Subject"; and "The Smile Beneath the Smile," in which female bystanders admire the visual effect of a couple tormented by romantic longing. The metanarrative in "The Smile Beneath the Smile" comments:

It is no accident that love finds expression in poetry. Love has nothing to do with personality. It has to do with form. Translate this into emotional terms … and you find that romantic love has nothing to do with content … It only has to do with love.

This, I think, does a good deal to explain the highly marked aesthetic effect of a Colwin story. Her texts insist on beauty in surroundings, both in domestic interiors and in weather. The effect, on me at least, is a powerful nostalgia mixed with uneasiness. This is the same glossy, armored beauty David Lynch achieved in Blue Velvet. It looks normal, perfectly so; yet its inhabitants are often filled with pain and longing. It seems to me that Colwin is intentionally setting up an environment for her characters in a painterly way, and that the effect has something to do with effects like that created by the title of Happy All the Time. Colwin has a little joke with the reader when she picks a title for the dissertation of Harry Markham (who, in "The Big Plum," sits and gazes longingly at a checkout girl in his supermarket); his dissertation is called Vermeer and the Art of the Impossible (Passion and Affect).

Certainly there is a good deal of the glossy impossible in Goodbye Without Leaving. Colwin diverts her energy from the usual weather effects and pretty interiors to pull off two tours de force of beautification: of the experience of American blacks and of the Holocaust.

The black experience in Goodbye Without Leaving is a far cry from Toni Morrison, or even Andrea Lee. Race prejudice is as removed from Colwin's world as anti-Semitism; drugs in the music business are turned into a running joke. Vernon and Ruby Shakely make a tame version of Ike and Tina Turner, with only vague hints that Vernon is not a nice fellow. All of Geraldine's former colleagues on the tour prosper; she runs into her fellow Shakette Grace at a fancy dinner party which Grace is catering. Doo-Wah Banks is putting his children through college when last seen. Most striking is Geraldine's first view of the Race Music Foundation: "housed in an old brownstone on one of Harlem's nicer streets." In a whole novel set in Manhattan, Geraldine hardly sees an unpleasant sight; she is once "almost mugged" near her old apartment, but she is rescued by her kindly Ukrainian neighbors. On her return to the Race Music Foundation after a three-year hiatus she does notice that the subway station exit looks worse, but the Foundation "looked positively rich." And Geraldine's first view of the neighborhood to which she is to move with Johnny, and which represents to her an uncomfortable degree of bourgeois solidity, includes the following vignette: "a handsome black woman took a wooden basket of apples out of the back of her station wagon"; now the blacks look like WASPs. It is almost incredible that this book is contemporary with Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities; this is not New York as we know it. It's quite a trick to plunk your nice Jewish assimilated heroine down in Harlem as a switch on the Merion Cricket Club and have everything come out about the same.

The Holocaust survivors who populate the Hansonia Society also thrive. Colwin lavishes attention on their elegant clothing and food, both of which are frequent topics of discussion at the office. Geraldine has a chat with Hannah Hausknecht, the accountant, who tells about shopping at Saks and seeing there her best friend's aunt, who she had not known was still alive. As they talk Geraldine suddenly notices the tattooed number on Hannah's arm, and Hannah explains that she was in Auschwitz:

"I will tell you something. I only remember the good times. I was in the children's section and it was near the end of the war. We made up songs about cakes…. But look!" she said. "I have grown up so plump and happy."

Later Geraldine makes another friend, Mrs. Hornung, who gets Geraldine into her special private swim club, where other refugees cheerily meet to swim and gossip:

They had had everything taken away from them: their language, their landscape, their sense of stability, and here they were, greeting each other happily …, complaining about their hairdressers or dentists or stockbrokers, comparing the prices of shoes at Saks Fifth Avenue….

During Geraldine's whole time at the Hansonia Society, delving into records of research in the rural South during the 1930's, the narrative never so much as mentions the Depression.

Considering that some have wondered whether there can be art after Auschwitz, it is a bit breathtaking to have this drawing-room comedy. Yet it seems to me that Colwin is not falsifying human experience. Frivolous, cheerful people went into Auschwitz, and some of them came out. That there should be a continuity of cakes and ale is a sort of miracle, and a joyous one. Toward the end of the novel, and her final decision that perhaps she will sing again, Geraldine swims laps and remembers herself singing her first solo as a Shakette: "I thought of Hannah Hausknecht, who had described sitting on the steps of the children's barracks at Auschwitz singing: Was müssen das für Bäume sein / Wo die grossen Elephanten spatzieren gehen / Ohne anzustossen." The image of the little girl, who would someday turn into the lady in the Saks Fifth Avenue suit, sitting on the steps at Auschwitz singing a children's nonsense song, makes a serious statement about the place of silly cheerfulness in the face of the worst evil.

Music holds a special place in the hearts of those who grew up in the sixties. Rock and roll, as Bob Seger sings, never forgets. Geraldine Coleshares is not the first Colwin heroine to be haunted by tunes; Patricia Burr in "A Road in Indiana" (Passion and Affect) leaves her husband, prompted by a country and western album called Closing Doors. Jane Catherine Jacoby, in "Imelda," who has a yen for Latin music along with her Argentinian boyfriend, is moved to tears by the music of Graucho Pacheco's Latin Band at the Bronx Music Palace. Polly Rice, in "The Lone Pilgrim," sees music as a Proustian key to each person's private past: "It makes your past come back to you, and if you must pinpoint a moment in your life you can say, 'That was when "He's a Rebel," by the Crystals, was a hit.'" The kind of feeling for rock and roll that Geraldine has is immediately recognizable to a reader who lived through that time, and the feeling of outright, ecstatic joy produced by bopping always strikes me as one of the few metaphysical experiences available to ordinary people.

So it makes sense that, for Geraldine, the only pure experience is what she feels as a backup singer. For a person without a deeply felt religion, what could be more celebratory? Geraldine's best friend, Mary Abbott, a devout Catholic, several times compares her to a pilgrim, and says that being a Shakette (a female Shaker?) was not unlike being a nun—a form of pure being. Mary Abbott (appropriately named) knows this, because in the course of the novel she actually becomes a nun, in a Benedictine order; this caps a recurring appearance in Colwin's work of the Rule of St. Benedict (Holly reads it in Happy All the Time, as does the narrator of "St. Anthony of the Desert" [The Lone Pilgrim]). Geraldine knows this, too; she describes her feelings as Ruby sings her bravura number, "Jump for Joy": "The kind of ecstasy people find in religion, I found in being a Shakette. It was not an out-of-body experience, it was an in-body experience" (Goodbye Without Leaving).

In fact, in this book, rock and roll is what really comes off well as a religious experience. The scene that sticks in my mind takes place when Geraldine has gone to one of her loved haunts, an out-of-print record store near the Race Music Foundation, run by a zombie-like white rock aficionado named Fred Wood. She asks him for a record, which he produces and puts on the turntable:

Bob and Earl were of the gospel-inspired school of rock and roll. As the first notes rolled over us, we froze…. The opening had heavy gospel riffs on piano and shadow guitar. I felt my hair stand on end. When it was over, a tear slid down Fred Wood's cheek. He took the record off the turntable with great tenderness and slipped it into its little paper jacket.

"It's really beautiful," I said.

"Oh, yes," said Fred Wood. He removed the dead cigarette from the corner of his mouth. He gave me the record in a used bag. "It is awesome."

What makes these white people freeze and cry? What does "beautiful" mean here? It helps to see it glossed by "awesome" rather than "pleasant." The song—"gospel-inspired"—is about love that you feel "Deep Down Inside." Though Colwin never uses the term "soul music" in Goodbye Without Leaving, maybe that is what Geraldine is looking for. In this book, almost everyone yearns: whites for blacks, Europeans for Americans, Americans for Europeans, humans for God, men for women, women for men and children. Music and all beauty are simply the expression of that yearning.

I have been a reader of Colwin's for a long time, and have often asked myself why I take her so seriously when her writing is, on the face of it, so unserious. Perhaps her concern has been, all along, with immanence and the problems it poses. Most people seek beauty, admit it as a positive good; and, in love, we seek the beautiful we bring into being in another by our very gaze. Colwin superimposes her hyper-real world of the Vermeer interior onto the ashcan reality more customarily seen in art today, and I think that by so doing she provides a meditation on the nature of art and love.

Or maybe I just take her seriously because I recognize my own experience on her pages. When Catherine Morland, in Northanger Abbey, says she finds history dull because you never see a woman, page after page, this is part Austen's vindication of the novel form—her own form. As a classicist, I deal with a tradition from which almost every woman's voice has been expunged. It is enlightening to read Ovid's Ars Amatoria, but how nice it would be to have more of Sulpicia's poems to go along with it. In two thousand years, I hope that, if John Cheever is still around, Laurie Colwin is there, too.

But it is thought-provoking that the elision of the unpleasant in Colwin's work stands in this same honorable tradition in English literature; another little joke of hers in the title of Geraldine's projected dissertation, Jane Austen and the War of the Sexes (Goodbye Without Leaving). Colwin's world is also the drawing-room world of English domestic comedy. In the epigraph to this essay, one of Nancy Mitford's characters, the upper-class ex-prostitute Amabelle Fortescue, tells the young writer Paul Fotheringay (a thinly disguised Evelyn Waugh) that to be taken seriously would entail a departure from the upper classes.

Like the frustrated hero of Vile Bodies, Mitford's young hero has written a novel; his, meant as a tragedy, has been widely received as a comedy, much to his chagrin. Amabelle's comment applies not only to Paul's novel but, of course, to Mitford's. This sheltered world within the comfortable house has been marked for women writers and readers, and somehow at the same time lost its claim to be saying anything worth reading outside that world.

The elision of the unpleasant is not a denial of its existence; au contraire. Holly in Happy All the Time devotes her whole life to being a "domestic sensualist," a phrase that recurs in Colwin's work; toward the end of the novel, the skeptical Misty Berkowitz reaches an appreciative understanding of Holly's mission: "Even Holly worked: she worked to make life sweet … she fought to keep the ugly, chaotic world at bay and to keep a sweet, pretty corner to live in." Like Holly, or like Stella Gibbons's Flora Poste, Colwin engineers a world in which the forces of disorder are kept at bay and the writer (or lover, or domestic artist) is free to see what is then possible. (The elegance of Colwin's style, and the pleasure it provides to the reader, are of a piece with her manipulation of her subject matter.) The omission of class issues, while it may prevent Colwin's novels from being universes, allows a sharp focus on moral and personal issues. It also suggests that aesthetics and class-consciousness cannot easily coexist. But the self-consciousness of Colwin's manipulations keeps the reader from lapsing into a comfortable compliance with the text's omissions, and both suggests and calls into question the effort that it takes to keep "chaos" at bay.

How wide her audience could be is another question. It is worth pondering that Colwin herself comes from a background marginal to the one she most often describes; she went to Cheltenham High School, a public school in an ordinary suburb of Philadelphia, and her high school yearbook picture shows her in black turtleneck, well on her way to Bard. To a nice assimilated Jewish girl from the suburbs, the world of Polly Solo-Miller is hyperbole: the carrying of a tendency to its extreme.

In Goodbye Without Leaving, Colwin does begin a consideration of race, class, and religion (however unsuccessful). Throughout the novel, it is Geraldine's rejection of the moral compromise she sees in the real world that makes her path so difficult. She loves Johnny because he loves rock and roll, and she is impressed with his ability to come to terms with the world of grownups, but all the same she fears he has sold out; she distrusts him when he tells her, "You can act like a regular person and still boogie in your soul." She despises the liberal politics of his law-firm friends, and invents a game called "Who Likes Negroes Most?" And she is even conscious that her own experience of being a Shakette is a luxury; to the others, it was a way out of the projects, as Grace reminds her when they meet again. In the face of her family's bourgeois values, Geraldine continues to pursue only what feels "fine, fine, superfine" to her: rock and roll, the history of the blues, motherhood (which she eventually embraces wholeheartedly). She sees the project of the Race Music Foundation, to preserve black music for black people, as right and noble. But the problem of relations between Jews and blacks never appears here—a thunderous omission.

Likewise, Colwin finesses the core problem with assimilation: not the denial of Judaism, but the denial of Jewishness. The Jews at the Hansonia Society are Western, not Eastern European; no one wears a yarmulke. They are Polly Solo-Miller with Auschwitz tattoos, and it is clear that the kind of internalized anti-Semitism that reflects hook-nosed caricatures still operates in Colwin's text. The old Colwin rises from the page when Geraldine finally takes courage to visit the "Neighborhood Synagogue" (not, you notice, Temple Beth Sholom), and remarks, "It was a square building that looked something like a Quaker meetinghouse." Now even the shul doesn't look like a shul. She takes her Seder seriously, but her husband and son hardly do. If she has a shot at finding Judaism, she gets nowhere near her Jewishness, which doesn't arise—except implicitly, in the continuing lostness of this main character. The failure here is like the failure to deal with black realities and Jewish/black realities; it may be an inevitable result of Colwin's aesthetic practice, but it shows where the weakness of that aesthetic practice lies.

Overall, the book is more successful in finally naming the problem and locating it in a nostalgic rock & roller than in resolving it, and is most successful in its evocation of the joy of rock in memory. But, uneasy and fascinated as ever, I for one will continue reading and re-reading Colwin; as she says of Nellie Felix, it will be interesting to see what happens to her, because she has always been a pleasure to watch.

Pearl K. Bell (review date Winter 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 930

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 individual's pursuit of happiness, and bear down on the pain and pleasure of love. Few novelists these days pay much attention to happiness: it seems a bland idea (except for those who find it); it smacks of sentimentality; it blunts the sharp edge of irony; it's hard to define and harder still to dramatize. (As Clifford Odets once in all seriousness remarked, "Happiness is no laughing matter.") But Laurie Colwin is neither embarrassed nor intimidated by the possibilities of this eminently desirable but elusive state of being.

In Happy All the Time (1978), Family Happiness (1982), and Another Marvelous Thing (1989), Colwin focused her wit and clear-eyed intelligence on men and women, on the whole likeable and decent, who ought to be perfectly content with their lot but feel that something is missing. Yet they can't quite figure out what it is, or why they are restless and edgy. Most of them are well-educated, well-off New Yorkers, with good jobs and comfortable homes, without anything more distressing in their lives, it would seem, than an exasperating mother. Yet they tumble guiltily into adulterous love affairs without for a moment wanting to break up their more or less contented marriages. As Jane Louise, the heroine of A Big Storm, ruminates: "A husband was someone you could hide behind. You could cover your head with a marriage…. You could stamp out unnecessary or wayward emotions. You could dispel untoward thoughts. You could pretend that all of your life was all of a piece and it was wonderful, wonderful, wonderful…." (Note the word pretend.)

Colwin can be incisively ironic—and very funny—about oppressive parents, pretentious poseurs, and the philandering snakes that crawl into the most orderly gardens, and she harbors no illusions about the price most people may eventually have to pay for their willful self deceptions. But neither her irony nor her comic sense is tainted with acid. What she captures with finely nuanced precision and generosity of spirit is the way perfectly sensible human beings, seemingly without any cause for anxiety, become fretful about the direction their lives have taken, and berate themselves for their fretting. In Colwin's hands none of this ever smacks of self-pity or self-indulgence.

In her scrutiny of the domestic scene, she is particularly astute about the meaning of marriage and its awesome disturbances. As A Big Storm opens, Jane Louise, a successful book-designer in her late thirties, has just been married ("In sickness and in health, and in confusion"), and she can't stop gnawing at an invisible hangnail:

Had she changed? Was there now some new creature named Jane Louise Parker who was older, wiser, more grown-up? Did married people look and smell different?… What an odd thing it was to have a husband. This person who was almost like a household object—a pillow or a lamp—who transformed you from a single entity into a unit, whose breathing at night was as reassuring as a clock, to whom you could, of an evening, pay almost no attention at all, and who in one minute, with one look, could turn into what a husband actually was: a sexual being.

Jane Louise's plaintive agitation about the metamorphoses of marriage stems from her own and her husband's childhood traumas, which make her apprehensive about the giant step she has just taken. Neither of them has entirely recovered from the long-ago rancor of their parents' divorces and remarriages, and when they plan to have a baby, she is tormented by the thought that two "unprepared humans," of unhappy background, "were supposed to create some unswerving, stable, and dependable structure. How were they supposed to do that?"

A resourceful woman, this uneasy wife and reluctant mother climbs out of such sloughs of despond through heart-to-hearts with Edie, her dearest friend since college. The blessings of friendship—its compensations for the failures of family, its reassuring mortar of acceptance in a heartless world—play a vital role in Colwin's work. Like happiness, friendship is a fragile gift of life that few novelists bother to write about these days. When the two women give birth only weeks apart, Jane Louise, world-class worrier, asks Edie, "Do you suppose [the babies] will someday not be able to stand us?" Edie has the perfect answer: "Oh, doubtless. But they'll have each other."

The big storm of the title is a real tornado, but it is also Colwin's metaphor for the disruptive, unsettling changes enacted by marriage and parenthood. After the storm, the story ends in graceful tranquility on a country hilltop, as the two couples and their sleeping babies wait for the Fourth of July fireworks to begin—"that unexpected, magnificent, beautiful release, like the unexpected joy that swept you away, like life itself." We tremble, knowing what followed.

Soon after she wrote those closing words of her last novel, Laurie Colwin died of a heart attack. She was forty-eight years old. The loss is incalculable.

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Colwin, Laurie (Vol. 5)