Happy All the Time: Loving Laurie Colwin
by Margo Rabb
There are times in life when you need a book that doesn’t rend your soul or make you want to crawl under the covers and weep. Yet you don’t want fluff, you’re loath to have your brain invaded by young ladies dithering over where to find their next man/martini/Manolo, and you’re not in the mood to see how long it takes Miss Marple to find the murderer. You want to find a book that’s meaningful, smart, funny, and—dare one even hope?—maybe even joyful.
You need Laurie Colwin.
I read my first Laurie Colwin book, the story collection Passion and Affect, when I was twenty-one. I immediately fell in love with the Oreo-eating Greenie Frenzel, the misanthropic Misty Berkowitz, the gum-cracking Binnie Chester, and all her characters, but I didn’t race out and read her other books right away. I’d spent most of my college years reading classics and was just discovering contemporary fiction; I imagined that there must be a wealth of authors just like Laurie Colwin awaiting me.
I was wrong. As the years passed, I often asked friends, “Can you recommend someone who writes fiction that’s smart, literary, and kind of, well . . . happy? You know—someone like Laurie Colwin?”
I devoured the rest of Laurie Colwin’s books. Happy All the Time, a novel grown out of two stories from Passion and Affect, instantly joined my list of all-time favorite books. Published in 1978, my very-seventies-looking copy (complete with gold embossed heart and clinking champagne glasses) boasts this quote from a New Yorker review: “A pleasure . . . endless surprises and ultimately boundless joy . . . It would be difficult not to enjoy it all!” I can’t recall the last time I read a New Yorker book review that used the term “boundless joy” and, shock upon shocks, an exclamation point. But the reviewer was right: the novel is a celebration. Colwin’s characters are misanthropes and misfits, often pessimistic, cynical, sarcastic people who manage, despite themselves, to find a contented life.
The more fiction I wrote myself, the more I realized how difficult this is to carry off. Most “joyful” fiction tends to be unrealistic, clichéd, and so unbelievable that it’s depressing. But for Colwin’s contented misanthropes, joy takes them by surprise. “I hate other people,” states Jane Louise, the protagonist of Colwin’s last novel, A Big Storm Knocked It Over, even though Jane Louise is floored by the depth of love she feels for her baby daughter. Billy Delielle is similarly taken aback by love for her baby in the story cycle Another Marvelous Thing, which contains a line that captured exactly what I felt after my daughter was born: “Billy . . . found the experience of having a baby exactly like being madly in love.”
“Both happy and sad people can be cheered up by a nice meal,” Colwin wrote in More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen, the second of her two collections of food essays. In a gourmet-lit world rife with purple prose Colwin is a rarity: unpretentious, sarcastic, and self-mocking. For today’s time-crunched cook she suggests “la cuisine de la ‘slobbe’ raffinée,” or “the cooking of the refined slob,” which happily eliminates peeling potatoes and garlic, trussing chickens, and other superfluities. She’s not besotted by her own prose, nor is she self-indulgent. In her answer to Proust’s madeleine, she explains why she no longer makes beef tea, a favorite food from her childhood: “I am afraid that my childhood will overwhelm me with the first sip or that I will be compelled to sit down at once and write a novel in many volumes.”
“My friends are constantly driven crazy by me because I want to know what they had for dinner,” she writes in More Home Cooking. “I want to know what they had and how they cooked it. I’m not very curious about what people had out. I’m interested in what people have in, because I’m very interested in people’s domestic lives. I used to think I was frittering away my time, but the fact is, what is more interesting than how people live? I personally can’t think of anything. Maybe war, or death or something, but not to me.”
Laurie Colwin died in 1992 at the age of forty-eight. I can’t express what a loss it is that she died so young, that the eleven books she wrote are all we have left. There’s no other writer like her, and on many rainy Sunday afternoons she’s the only company I want to keep.
Margo Rabbís novel, Cures for Heartbreak, was published by Random House. Her short stories have been anthologized in Best New American Voices and New Stories from the South; have appeared in journals such as the Atlantic Monthly, Zoetrope, One Story, New England Review, and elsewhere; and have been broadcast on National Public Radio. Visit her online at www.margorabb.com.
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