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.
What a wonderful recommendation! I don’t think I’ve even heard of this author, let alone read anything by her. The book sounds lovely, although I may recognise too many aspects of my past self in Polly…
Yes, sadly I think you’d find yourself nodding along with Polly for most of this novel!
I’d vaguely heard of Colwin before Dorian recommended her to me — she’s often compared to Norah Ephron, which I can totally understand — however, it was lovely to receive such a personal endorsement of her work from a highly respected reading friend. It was absolutely spot on for me, just the kind of novel I love to read.
Ah, see this is how I feel about the books you select for me as part of the book subscription every month!
How lovely to hear that, Marina! Thank you – it’s been a pleasure to select books for you, especially as you’re such a thoughtful reader and very widely read!
I’m going to have a search for this online as I trust your recommendations. Thank you.
You’re very welcome. I hope you manage to find a copy as it’s a very thoughtful read!
Your first paragraph sold this one to me, Jacqui. It sounds wonderful. I’m not sure it’s in print here but I see Happy All the Time has just been reissued with an introduction from the excellent Katherine Heiny.
Oh, cool! Yes, that’s right. It’s been reissued by W&N as one of their ‘Essentials’ – ‘classic books for modern readers’ as they describe them. I’m quite keen to read Happy All the Time at some point as it should be a great follow-on from FH.
Harper Perennial seems to be reissuing some of her books (with wonderful covers). This one sounds wonderful…. “Goodbye Without Leaving,” in which a dissatisfied graduate student ditches her dissertation to hit the road, singing and dancing backup for a soul singer for two years only to fall in love with a lawyer; become a mother; and then fall into the arms of an old-soul European scholar.”
Yes, my copy is a Harper Perennial, and it’s beautifully produced. I do like the sound of the one you’ve highlighted in your comment. Do you know when it was set? If it’s the 1960s or early ’70s, then I’m definitely in.
I’m not sure. It was published. In 1990 two years before her desth, so perhaps not. I have ordered it so can get back to you.
Yes, do. I’d be interested to know!
This was a new name for me, too. I shall have to look out for it – sounds very good. Reminded me, oddly enough, of Evan Connell’s Mr/Mrs Bridge – different in most ways, from your account, but similar in its sympathetic portrayal of a married woman’s inner life.
That’s a really interesting comparison, Simon, as the Bridge novels are quite different in style and tone to Family Happiness, but I can totally see your point about the portrayal of a married woman’s inner life. Both Polly and Mrs B are constrained by the expected codes of conduct surrounding marriage and motherhood, and are taken advantage of by various members of their families. I guess the difference for Polly is the opportunity for her to have a lover. Much more difficult for Mrs Bridge from the 1930s to 1950s, when the bulk of her story takes place. A fascinating connection you’ve made there!
Lovely post. I read a couple of Colwin’s novels a few years ago (possibly also at Dorian’s recommendation) – you make me think I should give Family Happiness another try, as my own posts suggest I wasn’t that impressed with it at the time. Maybe I underestimated it, or just read it at the wrong time.
Thanks, Rohan. Yes, I suspect that Dorian has been cheerleading for Colwin for quite a while! That’s interesting to hear about your experiences with FH – timing can be such a tricky thing when it comes to reading books, and I often wonder about this aspect myself when I struggle to connect with a novel that others would recommend. As you say, it might be worth another try if you feel the time is right…
Ah so happy you read this, J, and even more so that you liked it so much!
When I re-read it a couple of years ago–now middle-aged myself–I was especially struck by the novel’s portrayal of the crushing qualities of *responsibility*. It brought tears to my eyes, in fact.
Well, I can tell you now that I genuinely loved it! Sometimes it’s a bit of a worry when a dear friend sends you a book to read (or gives you a personal recommendation) as it can come with the weight of expectation, a responsibility to the gifter who has been so generous in sharing it with you. Luckily, there were absolutely no concerns on that front with the Colwin, as I could tell from your description that I would almost certainly enjoy reading it. Sometimes you just know.
I found Polly very relatable as a character. Even though I don’t have children or a slyly manipulative mother of my own, I’ve seen these situations often enough in other families to recognise some of the potential problems and consequences. The burden of familial responsibility is absolutely a factor for Polly, and she is crushed by it — for a large part of the novel, at least.
So, where should I go next with Colwin? W&N reissued Happy All the Time earlier this years, so I’m wondering if it might suitable as a follow-on read?
How lovely to have such a good, personalised recommendation. Definitely not an author I have heard of, so well done for tracking down a copy of it. It sounds like an excellent novel. Full of those complex family dynamics I enjoy reading about.
I know! It was such a lovely thing to receive, especially in a handwritten letter…how I miss that form of communication now that so many of our conversations in life are taking place via screens. I had vaguely heard of Colwin before Dorian recommended her to me, although I’m struggling to remember where exactly. It was in relation to Nora Ephron, I think – that much I do recall, albeit somewhat fuzzily.
Thanks for this blog Jacqui. It’s the 2nd time that I’ve gone to look up one of your recommended books, only this time I got lost and found only a short story by Tolstoy by the same name. It just made me wonder if you’d thought about putting in links. Both Amazon and Bookshop.org (UK based – no idea where you are based) do affiliate programmes, so it might work out well for you too? (This does sound like one of those spammy messages, doesn’t it? It was just a thought)
Alex Morrall. Author of HELEN & THE GRANDBEES – “Uplifting” (national press)
Read a sample on http://www.alexmorrall.co.uk
Twitter: @AlexPaintings Website: alexpaintings.com
Thanks, Alex. That’s a very useful reminder. Funnily enough, I started including affiliate links to Bookshop.Org in some of my reviews at the back end of last year, but I keep forgetting to do it with my recent reviews! Something for me to amend going forward, so I will make a mental note.
As for sourcing this particular book, you may well struggle at the moment as it seems to be out of print in the UK. (I’m based in the UK.) W&N will be reissuing it next March, as it’s listed on the wholesaler’s website, but I appreciate that’s a long time to wait…
How marvellous that Dorian’s recommendation turned out to be so tailor-made for you, Jacqui! Like others who’ve commented, she’s a new name to me and sounds unjustly neglected this side of the pond. And very much in that New York family fiction kind of style – which I suppose may be why she’s less known over here!
Yes, it was such a lovely thing to receive, especially from Dorian. He’s very good when it comes to these personalised recommendations — you may well have received one yourself? — as the thought that goes into them is plain to see.
Not yet… I may be too much of a challenge!! ;D
Ha! Maybe, although I’m sure he could find something for you. ;-)
What a lovely perfect recommendation for you! And it sounds like a lovely book – not an author I’d heard of, either. I do have trouble reading books about marital troubles still but am getting over it (weirdly started when I got married after having been with husband and reading lots of books about divorces for 13 years already!) and this author is definitely going on my list to look out for in secondhand shops while we await the reprint!
Ah, that’s lovely to hear, Liz. You may have some luck with Colwin in the charity shops, you never know. And I completely understand where you’re coming from on the marital tensions front. It’s difficult subject to read about, often sparking thoughts about our own situations and experiences (or those of friends and family members). Still, Colwin handles it very well here, and the writing is excellent. It’s well worth picking up if you ever get the chance to do so.
I remember reading a couple of her books and some miscellaneous short stories years ago. I especially liked her dry wit which is present in all of her writing as far as I can tell. One of those read was a volume of her memoirs/cookery books and I do remember that being a real pleasure.
Lovely! I’ve ordered a copy of Home Cooking from the bookshop and am looking forward to it immensely. It sounds wonderful as it’s always a pleasure to read about food, especially in the context of family and associated memories.
Wonderful, hope you enjoy it and am looking forward to reading your thoughts on it!
This sounds wonderful! I’ve never heard of Colwin but her style seems so appealing. I’ll see if I can find any of her work, though it sounds tricky in the UK – I may have to ask a friend in NY to send me a parcel!
That’s sounds like an excellent idea! W&N reissued another of her novels, Happy All the Time, back in March, and I’ve heard very good reports. They’re also planning to bring Family Happiness into the fold next year – so, not too long to wait if you interested in tracking it down. X
A new author for me as well Jacqui but you had me hooked from your opening paragraph! Her style reminded me of Helen Hanff, that wry New York-y wit excellent, thank you!
Yes, Helene Hanff is a very good comparison! Colwin isn’t quite as cutting as Hanff, but she has a similar kind of Jewish New York-y vibe going on. Well worth seeking out if you get the chance.
How fortunate that you bought rather than borrowed this one; she is consistent through and through, so you might as well just buy up the rest now and save the trouble later. :)
Haha! That’s the main downside of receiving such a well-chosen recommendation as it opens the door to a whole new pile of books to be lusted after and acquired…
Good review–I enjoyed the book. I also enjoyed her book Home Cooking which I read and reviewed in February of this year.
Oh, great. I’m glad you enjoyed Home Cooking as I have a copy on order. It sounds right up my street.
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What a stunning ideal proposal for you! Also, it seems like a flawless book – not a writer I’d knew about, by the same token. I do experience difficulty perusing books about conjugal difficulties still yet am getting over it (abnormally began when I got hitched in the wake of having been with spouse and perusing loads of books about divorces for a very long time as of now!) and this writer is unquestionably going on my rundown to pay special mind to in recycled shops while we anticipate the reproduce!
I hope you’re able to find something by Colwin in the secondhand bookshops. She feels like a writer worth exploring.
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