Laurie Colwin: A Story Too
Short but Still in Print
by Jonathan Yardley
A decade after her lamentably premature death, Laurie Colwin enjoys a distinction that eludes all but the luckiest among living writers: All her books are still in print. Never a best-selling writer, she attracted an ardent following that has remained steadfast and recruits new devotees by word of mouth. She was primarily a writer of fiction -- three collections of short stories and five novels -- but she also wrote with irresistible gusto about cooking and food, and her two Home Cooking collections are beloved by many readers.
The ostensible subject of this essay is her second novel, Happy All the Time (1978), but more broadly what follows is a reflection upon Laurie Colwin and her life's work. I had best confess at the outset that I cannot hope to be objective about her. It was my good fortune to have been her friend during her last eight years, in the course of which we conducted an irregular correspondence, exchanging vigorously candid and/or catty opinions, mostly about books and writers and publishing. When a mutual friend called one October evening in 1992 to report the news of Laurie's death, it came as the proverbial blow to the solar plexus.
In her first book, a collection of short stories called Passion and Affect (1974), Laurie wrote with what can only be called heartbreaking prescience about a Mrs. Parker, who "died suddenly in October." The story continues: "The word 'tragic' was mentioned in connection with her death. She and Mr. Parker were in the middle of their middle age, and neither of them had ever been seriously ill. It was heart failure, and unexpected."
That is exactly what happened to Laurie. She was 48 years old when she went to bed on the evening of Oct. 23, 1992, in the snug SoHo apartment where she lived with her husband and their young daughter. She never woke up. It was heart failure, and unexpected. Her death left an immense emptiness. When her friends and admirers gathered a few months later to pay tribute to her, the large auditorium on upper Broadway was standing-room-only.
A native of Manhattan, Laurie grew up in many places, among them Philadelphia and Chicago. In her second story collection, The Lone Pilgrim (1981), she wrote about "an old, old Jewish family of the sort that is more identifiably old American than Jewish," which accurately described herself, as did a more barbed passage from the same book. "The Mayers were a family of watered-down German and Dutch Jews who had once had a lot of money. Now they had things." She was well educated (Bard, the Sorbonne, the New School, Columbia) and incredibly knowledgeable about just about everything (except baseball), which served her well when she worked as an editor in book publishing and as a translator -- from the Yiddish -- for the deservedly celebrated Isaac Bashevis Singer.
"I'm real old-fashioned," Laurie once said of herself, which was true but only up to a point. She adored beautiful old things but rarely had enough money to buy them; when she got a writing grant from the federal government, she went right out and bought herself an antique dining room table. Her manners were impeccable, and she valued good manners in others. She loved, and knew a lot about, classical music, chamber music in particular. Similarly, most of the writers she loved had been around for a while; indeed, her own most direct literary ancestor was Jane Austen, as is made charmingly clear by a brief passage from the title story of The Lone Pilgrim.
"Oh, domesticity! The wonder of dinner plates and cream pitchers. You know your friends by their ornaments. You want everything. If Mrs. A. has her mama's old jelly mold, you want one too, and everything else that goes with it -- the family, the tradition, the years of having jelly molded in it. We domestic sensualists live in a state of longing, no matter how comfortable our own places are."
Family, marriage, chattels, tradition -- it is Austen to the core. Yet Laurie also loved popular music, Motown in particular; her fourth novel, Goodbye Without Leaving (1990), enabled her to live, even if only vicariously, her no-longer-secret dream of being the only white backup singer in a touring soul group. She wrote almost entirely about rather privileged young Manhattanites of her own generation, yet she found time several days a week to work in a soup kitchen for the elderly and impoverished; she was a liberal, but hardly a limousine liberal. She moved easily among the prosperous and prominent, but her greatest affections were reserved for friends little known outside their own circle; whenever she mentioned in a letter that she knew someone moderately famous, she was invariably a little apologetic about it.
By the time we met in 1984 I had read all five of the books she had then written and had given an extravagantly favorable review to the most recent of them, Family Happiness (1982), but she wasn't at all what I'd expected. This writer of immaculate prose who told stories about people who somehow seemed immaculate even when they were messy turned out to be not a willowy belle but a compact bundle of perpetual motion who could have passed for the Energizer Bunny. She was a writer, so much of her time was spent alone, but she was also a pepperpot who delighted in the company of people she liked and delighted not much less in dishing those she didn't. She had a strong streak of the Jewish mother, forever pressing upon visitors homemade treats that may have been good for the soul but were very bad for the waistline.
Because her heart was so big, it comes as no surprise that the subject she most often wrote about was love. To what extent her knowledge of this endlessly complex and interesting business derived from her own experience, I have no idea. She was well into her thirties when she married, and it was a happy marriage, but one deduces from the early stories and knowledge that there had been steps, and perhaps missteps, along the way. "Falling in love is not a mistake," according to a character in one of the stories in The Lone Pilgrim, which pretty much sums up Laurie's own sentiments, as does another sentence elsewhere in the same collection: "She was tender on the subject of animals, but the cats reminded her of herself: so willing, so hungry for love."
Laurie knew that love can bring incredible happiness but also that it can be incredibly hard. That is the stone cold truth at the core of Happy All the Time, because the four lovers in that exquisite novel are not happy all the time. Guido Morris marries Holly Sturgis, and his cousin Vincent Cardworthy marries Misty Berkowitz, and there's a lot more to it than that: "Love made fools of everyone. It was man's fate." Or, as Vincent says a bit later, "Sometimes I think it's love and sometimes I think it's sickness."
He says that about Misty, who is self-evidently Laurie Colwin in not very thin disguise. "I am," MIsty says not long after meeting Vincent, "the scourge of God," and for quite a while she seems just that. "I can't stand to do anything without a fight," she says, which most emphatically includes falling in love: "Misty felt that life was a battle. You had to fight and think. You had to hack your way through life with your intelligence as a machete cutting down what obstacles you could. You were born knowing nothing: you had to fight for what you knew." But persistent Vincent is a fighter, too, and after some time -- not to mention some roller-coaster emotional swoops -- he wins her. At dinner they tell Guido and Holly that they are going to get married:
"There are going to be thousands of dinners like this, thought Misty. This is my place at the dinner table. This is my intended husband's best friend and that is the wife of my intended's best friend whom I am going to spend the rest of my life getting to know. Across the table, Vincent looked seraphically happy. How wonderful everything tasted, Misty thought. Everything had a sheen on it. Was that what love did, or was it merely the wine? She decided that it was love.
"It was just as she suspected: love turned you into perfect mush."
In that passage as in every page of Happy All the Time, Laurie draws close to the line of sentimentality and then pulls sharply back. Happy yes, sappy no. Misty speaks for Laurie as well as for herself when she tells Vincent: "You believe in happy endings. I don't. You think everything is going to work out fine. I don't. You think everything is ducky. I don't....I come from a family that fled the Czar's army, got their heads broken on picket lines, and has never slept peacefully anywhere." What gives Laurie's fiction its distinctiveness, what rescues it over and over again from mere romance, is the tough-mindedness at its core.
What I said in reviewing Family Happiness applies equally to Happy All the Time and all the rest of Laurie's work: "Though [it] gives a first impression of modesty and even sentimentality, the reader is best advised to beware: darker matters lurk beneath its glittering surface, and a wry appreciation of life's ambiguities." The four people she gives us in Happy All the Time can fairly be described as nice, but she never allows them the easy way out. The marriages they make are the keys to their happiness, but marriage can be dull and quotidian, as Misty discovers not long after the vows are spoken. Even when she's happy, she has to work at it:
"The big surprise that marriage to Vincent had sprung on her was contentment. She had moments of desolation and moments of great joy, but underneath was some steady current of feeling. Misty's propensity toward pessimism and Vincent's toward optimism really did complement. Vincent was no less cheerful, and Misty was only slightly less judgmental, but they seemed to have formed a third person who smoothed out their edges and made life together possible and profitable. Misty excepted Vincent from the rest of human kind. He had his faults, but he was genuinely kind and true. He played fair and was generous. The difference between them was that Vincent really believed that things worked out for the best and Misty did not."
So: a wise, bighearted book by a wise, bighearted writer. A deft and funny one, too. Laurie could nail someone in a couple of sentences: "Sybil was a modern dancer who also studied mime. She was a vegetarian and took a brand of vitamin pills that could be obtained only in New Jersey." Or: "Arnold Milgrim was a small, muscular man. His suit looked as if it had been reduced to scale to fit a box turtle. He wore small, polished loafers and socks that were the deep red of arterial blood. He was bald and his face had the naked, political sensuality seen on the busts of Roman generals."
Laurie was not an autobiographical novelist in the received sense of the term, but her fiction closely followed the pattern of her life. The early stories and the novels Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object (1975) are about young love, its pleasure and pain. Happy All the Time and Family Happiness are about marital and familial love. The story collection Another Marvelous Thing (1986) and the posthumous novel A Big Storm Knocked It Over (1994) are about motherhood and mother love. Had she been given more time, it seems a safe bet that she would have written more and more about childhood and adolescence, and about the small nuclear family. She reshaped her own experience into books that touch others; she worked on a small scale but made the universal out of it.
She was granted less than a quarter-century of writing, from her first published story in 1969 to her death 23 years later, but she made the most of it: 10 sublime books that are still in the stores, still brining happiness, Colwin-style, into the world. In time there will be one more. A collection of her letters is in the works, publication date unknown. As one who was fortunate enough to receive some of these, I can give you a pre-publication review: It will be another marvelous thing.
From The Washington Post, Washington, D.C. Tuesday, July 1, 2003. Page C01.