Back in November, I received a lovely handwritten letter from Dorian (at Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau) which contained a personalised recommendation for the writer Laurie Colwin. In his letter, Dorian described Colwin’s books as being very New York-y: wry rather than funny, bittersweet but not sentimental, and Jewish, albeit in a low-key kind of way. He made them sound right up my street; a little Woody Allen-ish in style, back in the days when his films were good.
In particular, Dorian mentioned Colwin’s 1982 novel Family Happiness, clearly a favourite; he’d revisited it a few years earlier and it had totally held up. Off I went in search of a copy; the book doesn’t appear to be in print in the UK, but fortunately I was able to find one online. What follows below is my review of this novel – a beautifully observed story of familial obligations and our need to feel loved and valued, especially by those we’re closest to.
In a nutshell, I *adored* this book and hope to pick up more of Colwin’s work in the future.
Central to the novel is Polly Demarest, the accommodating middle child of Wendy and Henry Solo-Miller, the dual heads of a traditional New York Jewish family. Polly is married to another Henry, Henry Demarest, a successful, well-respected lawyer, who in turn is wedded to his work. The couple have two wonderful children (Pete, aged nine, and Dee-Dee, aged seven), a comfortable home and few if any financial worries.
On the surface, Polly seems to have the perfect life; she works part-time as a research co-ordinator in educational studies, an interesting, fulfilling role that give her two days a week at home to spend time with the children; she is a terrific cook and works hard around the house to make life for her husband as smooth as possible; she is open, straightforward, and an excellent mediator. In short, everything in Polly’s life seems ordered and well-catered for.
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 study, upright, cheerful, and kind as she. (p. 6)
Nevertheless, there is a downside for Polly in all of this. Her kindness and accepting nature mean that she is sorely taken for granted by her family – not just her husband, Henry, but also the Solo-Millers who all come with their own individual faults and failings.
Most notable in this respect is Polly’s mother, Wendy, who holds her daughter to the highest moral standards, chastising Polly for ‘neglecting’ her children’s welfare in favour of a job that appears unnecessary – clearly of secondary importance to Polly’s familial responsibilities, as far as Wendy is concerned. This, accompanied by Wendy’s adoration of her eldest child, Paul – a sombre lawyer who appears to have little in the way of a personality – is galling to say the least. Colwin’s insights into Wendy and her husband, Henry – another lawyer, this one prone to the occasional ‘flicker of disapproval’ across the breakfast table – are brilliantly done.
There is another brother too, Henry Jnr, whose job as an engineer, Czech wife, and rather casual attitude at the dinner table all prove disappointing to Polly’s mother, a woman who struggles to understand anything that falls outside the traditional Solo-Miller moral codes.
If Polly had told her mother that the family Wendy had gotten was more interesting than the family she had bargained for, Wendy would have told her that an interesting family did not strike her as an attractive idea. Families were not meant to be interesting. Wendy believed that life should be predictable. The unpredictable she considered rather vulgar. (pp. 98–99).
This is all brought into sharp relief for Polly when she meets and falls in love with Lincoln Bennett, a talented painter who values Polly for who she is, not for what she can do for those around her. Although Lincoln is something of a lone wolf, a confirmed bachelor who would never be happy living with a long-term partner, he is just as captivated by Polly as she is by him. With his boyish good looks and relaxed manner, Lincoln is the exact opposite of the world Polly has been constrained by. He knows the Solo-Millers as acquaintances and considers them to be smug, self-contained and resolute in their own superiority, typically to the exclusion of anyone they deem inferior.
What Colwin does so well here is to illustrate how the ongoing affair with Lincoln causes Polly to question various aspects of her life. Her functional marriage to Henry, the lack of appreciation she receives from her family, and her fundamental beliefs about love and happiness – all of these things are swiftly called into question, prompting Polly to feel like a stranger in her own life.
She had chosen him [Henry Demarest]. She had picked someone whose ways she knew: someone generous, kind, intelligent, and good, who loved and honored her for the excellent qualities he had come to expect and take for granted, and whose neglect, whose immersion in work, whose abstraction when engaged in work she was expected, as she had been trained, to accept, accommodate, and lighten when she could. Could it be that she had never been happy doing this? That this role had always been a burden? That she had never felt at ease in her family or cherished by her husband? (p. 107)
Polly realises that she loves Lincoln very deeply, that he is becoming vital to her happiness and her own sense of self. Until now, Polly’s view of happiness has been constructed around family – building a family, keeping it running smoothly, celebrating events and successes, being there to resolve the difficulties. For Polly, married life has been about ‘loyalty, unity and strength’, providing goods and services, to the detriment of any noticeable feelings of warmth and affection.
As Polly wrestles with these issues, she risks being overcome with a combination of guilt, confusion and remorse over her affair with Lincoln. She still loves Henry and knows in her heart of hearts that he is the perfect partner; however, she also feels desperately isolated in her marriage. The maelstrom of emotions Polly experiences is brilliantly captured for the reader.
Ultimately, Colwin manages to bring Polly’s dilemma (and the novel itself) to an elegant resolution, one where Polly begins to challenge her mother’s overly critical views and slyly controlling behaviour. There is a confrontation of sorts between Polly and her husband too, a heart-to-heart where Polly reveals how just how neglected and unloved she has been feeling in the construct of their marriage.
Alongside the perceptive insights into family dynamics, the pin-sharp characterisation and the piercing self-questioning Polly subjects herself to, there are some wonderful touches of humour here – the wry brand of comedy Dorian promised me in his letter. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that highlights this aspect of Colwin’s prose.
In this scene, Paul’s wife, Bente – an annoying Swiss psychiatrist who is obsessed with creating a ‘placid birth environment’ for her children – has just given birth to twins. Unsurprisingly, she is another character who causes Polly significant angst with her fixed views on families and motherhood.
Meanwhile, Henry Sr., reported, Paul had given specific orders. To ensure continuance of the placid birth environment, Beate would not see visitors at the hospital, nor would she see them for the first two weeks at home.
“According to the Dr. Ping,” said Henry Sr., “the babies must be kept in a softly lit room, with soft music, and wrapped in soft cotton blankets, I think Paul said.”
“Maybe they should keep them in the fridge,” said Henry, Jr. (p. 270)
Family Happiness is published by Harper Perennial; personal copy.