We finicky readers have great expectations and are devastated when we’re led astray. Despite what the reviewers tell you, there is no new Jane Austen. Remember that.
I expect books to inspire, to breathe ideas, language, and comfort into my soul. Last week I returned to the 20th century and rediscovered the charming Laurie Colwin (1944-1992), whose novels and short stories are as pertinent now as they were when they were first published. Her brilliant short stories appeared in The New Yorker and she was a columnist for Gourmet magazine.
I decided to reread my favorite Colwin novel, Family Happiness (1982), which is so witty and lucid that I experienced linguistic uplift. The title, of course, refers to the first line of Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
The charming, funny heroine, Polly Solo-Miller Demerast, is almost perfect. She is the loving wife of a workaholic lawyer, Henry Demerast, the perfect mother of Pete and Didi, the devoted daughter of eccentric, difficult parents, Wendy and Henry, Sr., and the hard-working Coordinator of Research in Reading Projects and Methods for the information arm of the Board of Education.
Colwin wittily begins the novel:
Polly Solo-Miller Demerast was the perfect flower of the Solo-Miller family. This family had everything: looks, brains, money, a strong, fortified sense of clan, and branches in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, as well as London, just like a banking house. The patriarch of the New York gang was Henry Solo-Miller, husband of the former Constanzia Hendricks, nicknamed Wendy. Both were of old, old Jewish families, the sort that are more identifiably old American than Jewish. Solo-Millers and Hendrickses had come from Holland via Spain before the American Revolution, and which they had either taken part in or raised money for.
This beautifully-written novel is not much like Anna Karenina, but Polly did read Anna Karenina on her honeymoon. That is not a good sign.
What a terrific book. I recommend it: it will make you chortle, and you will also empathize with Polly’s angst in love. Colwin understands it all. Which is more important: family or romantic love? Tolstoy and Colwin consider both points-of-view.