We read a lot: novels that impress us but that soon fade, The Great Gatsby every New Year’s Day to remind us what a work of art can achieve in 180 pages, poetry in between editing jobs to refresh and reinvigorate us. We read the way a beloved professor told us we should: begin with the hope that whatever’s before you on the page is going to be the best thing you’ve ever experienced. That way, you’re never negatively biased, nor are you unduly impressed by the ordinary.
Laurie Colwin is a favorite writer we’d never heard of until six months ago, but—and this is no hyperbole—one I’d be poorer as a reader, as a thinker and as a human without. In deceptively simple prose about romantic love, family interaction and identity, Colwin’s characters crackle with insight. She also writes some of the funniest dialogue I’ve encountered. Her women are bright, witty, inventive, confused, daring and loveable. Her worlds are so convincing that they make you wonder why everyone doesn’t write just like this.
We both started with Happy All the Time (1978), about male cousins and the women they fall in love with in New York. There’s no clever scenario, no outlandish or visionary melding of genres. Colwin concerns herself with people, their deepest insecurities and passions, their desires and failures, their unique everydayness. This is fiction that realizes the importance of the people with whom we surround ourselves and how our environment and our companions form us. But she does this with a light touch, as though she’s recounting the story of beloved but sometimes silly friends.
In one scene, Vincent and Misty so desperately like each other that they ruin their date.
“This is awful,” she said. “I wonder why I bother. See what you get? You get invited to dinner and it’s rotten.”
“You mean the pot roast and potatoes? They were wonderful.”
Misty looked at him sadly. “You’re so dumb you don’t even know the difference,” she said. “Now you’re finally here. That’s what you wanted, wasn’t it? You’re here and neither of us has a thing to say. Now you know.”
“Know what?” Vincent said.
“Now you know where you don’t belong. Or maybe where I don’t belong. Think of how much nicer it would have been for you if one of those girls in the PR department who wears bright green sweaters and pink shirts and who goes to Bermuda in the spring had invited you for dinner.”
Each new Laurie Colwin book I read becomes my favorite: the one about a Jewish girl from New York who drops out of college to become the only white backup singer (a Shakette) for an African American band (Goodbye Without Leaving, 1990); the one about Polly’s extended family and the conflicting pull she feels from her children, her lover and her yearning for a separate identity (Family Happiness, 1982). In her fiction, Colwin’s questions remain the same: Who am I alongside all the people I love? How have I been formed? And is this the person I want to remain? If I change, will my beloveds still love me?
And she’s funny. So funny, so smartly intelligent that I smile and laugh through these pages that make me question everything I thought I knew.
They force me to tell people every day: Read Laurie Colwin.
Happy All the Time is available from Vintage. Find this and all of Laurie Colwin’s books at your local library or bookstore, Avenue Bookstore, Powell’s, Amazon and all the good places that sell books.