After a Bad Book, What Do You Read? Laurie Colwin’s “Family Happiness”

I wandered around the house, looking for a great book.  I was near tears after wasting time on a couple of lousy books.   It’s a literary cycle—kind of like a washing-machine cycle—of book addiction and despair. 

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.”

Laurie Colwin

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. 

Polly does everything for everybody, but nobody praises her or notices her accomplishments.  She retains the appearance of family happiness until she falls in love with Lincoln, a brilliant artist who grew up with her brother Henry, Jr., and is unimpressed by the Solo-Millers.  Their love affair is charming and sweet, but it stirs up uncertainty and anxiety.

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.

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