When Dorian (at Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau) first introduced me to Laurie Colwin’s books, he described them as very New York-y. Wry rather than funny, bittersweet but not sentimental – and Jewish, albeit in a low-key kind of way. A little like Woody Allen’s films, back in the days when they were good. (Annie Hall would be a great reference point.)
First published in 1979, Happy All the Time fits right into that groove. It’s a charming, generous novel about love and friendship – light-heated in style but insightful on the complexities of human nature. More specifically, it explores the challenges of finding happiness in a relationship, especially when each partner has a different outlook on life.
Guido and Vincent have been best friends since boyhood. Both are well educated and comfortable financially – their families are upper-middle class and distantly related. When we first meet them, these men are in their late-twenties – neither is married, but each has a different attitude to romantic entanglements.
Guido – who manages a charitable arts trust on behalf of his family – thinks of himself as a romantic, ‘an old-fashioned man living in modern times’, wedded to the belief that real love affairs usually end in marriage. Consequently, he eschews the idea of casual dalliances in favour of deeper commitment. Vincent, on the other hand, flits from one unsuitable (and often unavailable) woman to another – ‘vague blond girls’ are his usual type, much to Guido’s dismay. Vincent – a garbage specialist at a think-tank for urban planning – is intelligent, optimistic and easy-going, but rather muddled in matters of the heart. Guido, by contrast, is an elegant, sensitive worrier; he agonises over things too much, analysing them to the hilt.
When Guido spots an attractive girl at a museum, it’s love at first sight. Unfortunately, the object of his affection – an elegant, precise, well-ordered young woman named Holly – proves rather challenging for him to woo. Nevertheless, Guido persists in his pursuit, and after two solid months of walks, dinners and visits to galleries, the pair are sleeping together and slipping into a natural routine.
Meanwhile, Vincent experiences his own revelation when he falls for Misty, a linguistics colleague from work. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Misty is the exact opposite of Vincent’s previous girlfriends. She is intelligent, prickly and somewhat insecure (an earlier love affair has left her wounded and reluctant to commit). But for Vincent, this is serious, a point that Guido quickly detects.
He had never seen Vincent so emotional. He could remember Vincent been troubled by women, or bothered by them, or made to feel guilty on their account, but he had never seen Vincent agitated by a girl. The tail of his shirt hung below his jacket. His loosened tie hung to one side. His hair looked as if he had spent the morning running his hands through it. This made Guido feel very old and wise. He felt that Vincent was about to have his heart broken at last and that he would be a bad friend to stop it. Vincent needed to have his heart broken. (p. 44)
Colwin is terrific with dialogue – a skill she uses to great effect here, especially in the early stages of Vincent and Misty’s relationship.
“What I mean to say is, I’m sorry to have kissed you like that yesterday.”
Misty lifted her eyes from the tablecloth. The most remote flicker of a smile crossed her lips.
“Is that really what you mean to say?” she said.
“I thought it was,” said Vincent.
“Think again,” said Misty. The flicker had turned into a real smile, a smile that looked almost warm. That, of course, was an excellent sign. “Did you actually drag me out to dinner to tell me that you didn’t mean to kiss me?” She was still smiling. (p. 46)
In time, Guido and Holly marry, settling into their lives together. While Guido makes a success of his family’s trust, Holly spends her time on various hobbies, ranging from cookery classes, flower arranging, studying the arts and languages. That’s all very well, but what really interests Colwin is some of the bumps along the road in these relationships – the difficulties of finding contentment when our outlooks are not in synch. After three years of seemingly blissful marriage, Holly remains something of a closed book to Guido. She takes care of the house and does various things to enrich their lives, but she rarely emotes – a point that Guido finds baffling and frustrating.
He felt his three years of married life had gone by in a swoon, although the details, like those in great paintings, stood out in high relief. But what Holly thought was still a mystery to him. Although by action she seemed to love him ardently, Holly did not seem to live in the realm of the emotions. She felt, she emoted, and she never gave it a second thought. The complexities of love and marriage were things she lived with and through, and that was that. Guido, to whom thinking and feeling were the same thing, was learning that you might live with someone whose sense of life was not your own. (p. 66)
When Holly announces that she needs some time on her own to appreciate the value of their marriage, Guido doesn’t understand. In short, Guido cannot put himself in Holly’s shoes (or anyone else’s, for that matter). So, despite struggling to appreciate that their lives have become too predictable, Guido reluctantly lets Holly go, fearing what might happen, if and when she returns. Meanwhile, Vincent and Misty are experiencing their own problems, particularly around commitment. Vincent is head over heels in love with Misty – a sensation he has never experienced before. Misty, however, remains cautious – fearful of getting hurt if she allows herself to open up.
“I love you,” said Vincent.
“I don’t believe you,” said Misty. “I think you find me sociologically interesting. You like the novelty but it’ll wear off and then you’ll get bored.”
“Look,” said Vincent, “is it so awful having someone love you?”
“Yes,” said Misty. (p. 90)
As the narrative plays out, we follow each couple’s path to finding happiness and contentment, encompassing their hopes and dreams, insecurities and frustrations. In short, each individual must learn to adapt or become more accommodating in some way as they come to terms with each other’s needs. Alongside the leading players, there are some wonderful supporting characters too. Most notably, a quiet, highly efficient secretary, a trippy, hippy cousin, a colourful uncle and an unbearable outdoorsy type who succeeds in making Misty jealous (thankfully only briefly).
This is a lovely book, the literary equivalent of comfort food – or being wrapped in a heated blanket on a cold winter’s day. A delightful, wise, wryly humorous novel, full of warmth and generosity.
Happy All the Time is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.