An American Classic: Laurie Colwin’s Family Happiness

Laurie Colwin

Laurie Colwin

Those of you who have read Laurie Colwin’s wonderful fiction and charming cookbooks will understand what brings me back again and again to her masterpiece, Family Happiness. This slender, quirky novel is a comic version of  Anna Karenina, as might have been written by Jane Austen, with  many comic twists, much confusion, and ultimately triumph for the heroine.

People aren’t perfect. Colwin knows this.

In Family Happiness, Polly Solo-Miller Demarest is tired of being perfect.

Polly Solo-Miller Demarest 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.

Can’t you already feel the pressure?

Everyone takes Polly for granted. Her lawyer husband pays no attention to her, and her finicky mother gives unconditional love to Polly’s two odd brothers but is critical of Polly.  Polly is the mother of two children, and her mother thinks she shouldn’t work.

Family Happiness by Laurie ColwinPolly does get respect at work.  She is coordinator of Research in Reading Projects and Methods for the information arm of the Board of Education.

She leaves Sunday brunch at her parents’ early to go to a reading seminar.  A reading seminar on Sunday? you ask.

She is actually meeting her painter lover, Lincoln, “the friend of her heart.”

Polly is conflicted about the affair, but this friendship with Lincoln keeps her going in hard times. She knows she couldn’t run away with him:  he loves her but needs solitude.  What should she do?  She is in agony.  Her husband Henry comes home late night after night and barely talks to her.  She feels she has to beg him for sex.

We feel for her predicament, but  it is Colwin’s wit and the understated description of Polly’s confusion that make us love Polly so.  We can feel her frustration as she walks home in the snow,  unable to find a taxi,  trying to balance “her briefcase, her handbag, and two large shopping bags containing her ten baguettes, the cheeses, salted almonds, a box of cigars, a large box of her family’s favorite chocolate, two bottles of champagne, and a bottle of brandy….  She felt like throwing herself and everything else into the street.”

And then she mentions Anna Karenina.

Polly had had her adolescent swivets, her bouts of nerves, her small heartaches.  She had read, good student of literature, novels in which great unhappiness and emotional tragedy unfolded.  She knew these states of feeling existed.  She had sat on the deck of an ocean liner going to France on her honeymoon and read Anna Karenina.  Heroines in literature fell from grace little by little.  Did nice people ever feel this miserable?  Lincoln said they did, but Polly did not really know many people outside her family; and no one in her family, she was sure, had ever felt the way she did, or if they had, they had triumphed over it in secret.  Her distress frightened her.  It was not because she had fallen in love with Lincoln.  It was what allowing herself to fall in love revealed:  that everything was wrong.

The love affair allows Polly to reach for happiness.  She doesn’t leave her family; she loves her family; but she starts demanding more.  And the ending is unexpected.  I won’t tell you what happens to Polly, but you will be surprised, too.

The New York Times ran a story last week on Colwin, whose cookbooks, Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, both collections of her Gourmet Magazine columns, are still very popular.  (I have both of them, and the recipes are excellent.)  Here is a link to  he NYT article, “Laurie Colwin: A Confidante in the Kitchen.”

What are your favorite Laurie Colwin books?  I’m sure that many of you, like me, read them in the ’80s.  She died at 48:  so sad.  Her books should be in the Library of America.  (Another selection I’m happy to make for them.:))