Laurie Colwin’s great subject was happiness – whether romantic, familial, domestic, or culinary – and she managed to write about it with both élan and emotional depth.
This year, to mark 30 years since her untimely death, Vintage Books and Harper Perennial are issuing enticing new paperback editions of most of her books. For longtime devotees, it’s an excuse to revisit novels like “Happy All the Time” and personal essays like “Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen.” It’s also a chance to introduce Colwin to a new generation.
In the summer of 1982, I spent more time than I should have – but less than I wished I had – interviewing Colwin for a magazine profile. She was 38, and already the author of two short story collections and three novels, every one of which I’d gobbled up as they were published.
When I first read Colwin in my 20s, I was drawn to her sophisticated, urban characters, who, even in their 30s, were still trying to figure out how they wanted to live. What stood out were the epiphanies that finally forced them to grow up, as well as her clever inversion of the marriage plot. In her fiction, ardent men court prickly, difficult, wedding-shy women who are not only resistant to their suitors’ charms, but resistant to revealing their own. Unlike in Jane Austen – to whom she has often been compared – marriage doesn’t resolve everything for her characters, but instead opens up new challenges.
Colwin and I met at her small but consummately homey brownstone apartment in New York, which was filled with books and china; it quickly became apparent that, as she wrote of so many of her protagonists, Colwin was “a strong domestic sensualist” who had “a positive genius for comfort.” She was also a foodie, an ardent proponent of healthful and comforting home-cooked meals.
Casually dressed in her de facto uniform – a navy and white striped T-shirt – Colwin plied me with tea while I plied her with questions. She offered opinions on everything from English cuisine (which she actually loved) to the size and texture of her kitchen sponges, and advice on the upcoming publication of my first novel. She generously showed me the heavily marked-up manuscript of one of her New Yorker stories.
Eventually, we ambled over to Chelsea’s iconic Empire Diner for lunch. Along the way, she stopped more than once to chat with neighbors. This was a cozier Manhattan than the one I experienced uptown as a relative newcomer.
I didn’t know it yet, but I was pregnant with my first child, and as our meal progressed, I felt increasingly unwell. Who knows what Colwin made of my sudden pallor, or of me in general, with my fancy Ivy League degrees and early marriage. She had dropped out of Bard College at 19 and worked various jobs in publishing until her writing career took off. Her marriage to her longtime partner, book editor Juris Jurjevics, was still a year off, and the birth of their child, who now goes by RF Jurjevics, was nearly two years away.
Ten years later, when I read about Colwin’s sudden death at 48, I was stunned, as were her legions of fans and friends. I had always meant to get back in touch with her, but life – including two kids – got in the way.
By then, she’d written five more books, including my favorite – an aptly titled collection of linked stories about a doomed extramarital affair called “Another Marvelous Thing” – two more novels, and two books of delectable food essays, many of which had been published in Gourmet magazine. (“More Home Cooking” and “A Big Storm Knocked It Over” were published posthumously, in 1993.)
Now, re-reading Colwin’s work three decades later, I am still captivated by the way she loved – and rendered lovable – all her heroines, however quirky, moody, slovenly, or domestically gifted they were. But I’m more struck by how often Colwin framed her exploration of the pursuit of domestic happiness through stories of husbands and wives who, against their scruples, find themselves smitten with someone other than their spouse. Colwin makes clear in these morally nuanced tales about “living with a divided heart” that love is complex.
Of course, the world has changed since Colwin wrote her books. In the BC (Before Cellphones) era, her characters relied on pay phones. They also spent a lot of time reading the Sunday papers (often in bed), smoking cigars (often indoors), and taking their fur coats to furriers for winter storage (on the Upper East Side). More jarringly, in her last novel, “A Big Storm Knocked It Over,” Colwin’s relatively good-humored treatment of a lascivious, racist coworker who hits on all the women in his office wouldn’t fly today.
And then there’s her focus on the “luxury problems” of upper-middle-class white New Yorkers. This limited range would no doubt come under even harsher criticism now than it did when they were first published.
Back in 1982, Colwin defended happiness as a subject worthy of serious fiction. She told me she believed that joy was a bigger, more interesting subject than misery; she was drawn in particular to the kinds of questions one can ask about how to live one’s life and make it good once economic needs were met. (Well aware of others’ dire financial straits, she volunteered at a women’s shelter.)
In “Family Happiness,” often considered her masterpiece, her emotionally torn heroine Polly tells a friend that she realizes she isn’t “really in trouble.” Colwin’s fiction, like her life, was filled with good friends. In this story, Polly’s friend responds, “It’s the sort of misery you have to have the luxury for, but that doesn’t make it less miserable or serious.”
In a tribute shortly after her death, critic Jonathan Yardley wrote of Colwin’s “exuberant combativeness”: “She had opinions the way rabbits have bunnies.” Many of them, including her firm views on what constitutes good chickens and eggs – free-range and organic – remain relevant. What you eat, she argued, can affect your quality of life as much as who you eat it with.
The sharp aperçus in her fiction also still delight: “Woe to those who get what they desire. Fulfillment leaves an empty space where your old self used to be, the self that pines and broods and reflects,” she writes in “The Lone Pilgrim.” In “Family Happiness” she quips, “In modern life, people either knew more than they ought or less than they should.”
Right up there with food, sex, and love, Colwin viewed family as integral to happiness. Also in “Family Happiness” – which ends, like “Mary Poppins,” with a family flying kites together – she wrote, “After all, family life was the mortar that kept the bricks together; the pitch that made the basket watertight; the chinking that kept out the wind and the weather. It was life itself, without an inch to spare.”
Colwin lived her short life without an inch to spare. We can only imagine what she might have written these past 30 years, but how wonderful it is that her books are still with us.