A decade after her lamentably premature death, Laurie Colwin enjoys
a distinction that eludes all but the luckiest among living writers: All
her books are still in print. Never a best-selling writer, she attracted
an ardent following that has remained steadfast and recruits new
devotees by word of mouth. She was primarily a writer of fiction --
three collections of short stories and five novels -- but she also wrote
with irresistible gusto about cooking and food, and her two "Home
Cooking" collections are beloved by many readers.
The ostensible subject of this essay is her second novel, "Happy
All the Time" (1978), but more broadly what follows is a reflection upon
Laurie Colwin and her life's work. I had best confess at the outset that
I cannot hope to be objective about her. It was my good fortune to have
been her friend during her last eight years, in the course of which we
conducted an irregular correspondence, exchanging vigorously candid
and/or catty opinions, mostly about books and writers and publishing.
When a mutual friend called one October evening in 1992 to report the
news of Laurie's death, it came as the proverbial blow to the solar
A decade after her death, Laurie Colwin still has something to say.
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In her first book, a collection of short stories called "Passion
and Affect" (1974), Laurie wrote with what can only be called
heartbreaking prescience about a Mrs. Parker, who "died suddenly in
October." The story continues: "The word 'tragic' was mentioned in
connection with her death. She and Mr. Parker were in the middle of
their middle age, and neither of them had ever been seriously ill. It
was heart failure, and unexpected."
That is exactly what happened to Laurie. She was 48 years old when
she went to bed on the evening of Oct. 23, 1992, in the snug SoHo
apartment where she lived with her husband and their young daughter. She
never woke up. It was heart failure, and unexpected. Her death left an
immense emptiness. When her friends and admirers gathered a few months
later to pay tribute to her, the large auditorium on upper Broadway was
A native of Manhattan, Laurie grew up in many places, among them
Philadelphia and Chicago. In her second story collection, "The Lone
Pilgrim" (1981), she wrote about "an old, old Jewish family of the sort
that is more identifiably old American than Jewish," which accurately
described herself, as did a more barbed passage from the same book: "The
Mayers were a family of watered-down German and Dutch Jews who had once
had a lot of money. Now they had things." She was well educated (Bard,
the Sorbonne, the New School, Columbia) and incredibly knowledgeable
about just about everything (except baseball), which served her well
when she worked as an editor in book publishing and as a translator --
from the Yiddish -- for the deservedly celebrated Isaac Bashevis Singer.
"I'm real old-fashioned," Laurie once said of herself, which was
true but only up to a point. She adored beautiful old things but rarely
had enough money to buy them; when she got a writing grant from the
federal government, she went right out and bought herself an antique
dining room table. Her manners were impeccable, and she valued good
manners in others. She loved, and knew a lot about, classical music,
chamber music in particular. Similarly, most of the writers she loved
had been around for a while; indeed, her own most direct literary
ancestor was Jane Austen, as is made charmingly clear by a brief passage
from the title story of "The Lone Pilgrim":
"Oh, domesticity! The wonder of dinner plates and cream pitchers.
You know your friends by their ornaments. You want everything. If Mrs.
A. has her mama's old jelly mold, you want one too, and everything else
that goes with it -- the family, the tradition, the years of having
jelly molded in it. We domestic sensualists live in a state of longing,
no matter how comfortable our own places are."
Family, marriage, chattels, tradition -- it is Austen to the core.
Yet Laurie also loved popular music, Motown in particular; her fourth
novel, "Goodbye Without Leaving" (1990), enabled her to live, even if
vicariously, her no-longer-secret dream of being the only white backup
singer in a touring soul group. She wrote almost entirely about rather
privileged young Manhattanites of her own generation, yet she found time
several days a week to work in a soup kitchen for the elderly and
impoverished; she was a liberal, but hardly a limousine liberal. She
moved easily among the prosperous and prominent, but her greatest
affections were reserved for friends little known outside their own
circle; whenever she mentioned in a letter that she knew someone
moderately famous, she was invariably a little apologetic about it.
By the time we met in 1984 I had read all five of the books she had
then written and had given an extravagantly favorable review to the most
recent of them, "Family Happiness" (1982), but she wasn't at all what
I'd expected. This writer of immaculate prose who told stories about
people who somehow seemed immaculate even when they were messy turned
out to be not a willowy belle but a compact bundle of perpetual motion
who could have passed for the Energizer Bunny. She was a writer, so much
of her time was spent alone, but she was also a pepperpot who delighted
in the company of people she liked and delighted not much less in
dishing those she didn't. She had a strong streak of the Jewish mother,
forever pressing upon visitors homemade treats that may have been good
for the soul but were very bad for the waistline.
Because her heart was so big, it comes as no surprise that the
subject she most often wrote about was love. To what extent her
knowledge of this endlessly complex and interesting business derived
from her own experience, I have no idea. She was well into her thirties
when she married, and it was a happy marriage, but one deduces from the
early stories and novels that there had been steps, and perhaps
missteps, along the way. "Falling in love is not a mistake," according
to a character in one of the stories in "The Lone Pilgrim," which pretty
much sums up Laurie's own sentiments, as does another sentence elsewhere
in the same collection: "She was tender on the subject of animals, but
the cats reminded her of herself: so willing, so hungry for love."
Laurie knew that love can bring incredible happiness but also that
it can be incredibly hard. That is the stone cold truth at the core of
"Happy All the Time," because the four lovers in that exquisite novel
are not happy all the time. Guido Morris marries Holly Sturgis, and his
cousin Vincent Cardworthy marries Misty Berkowitz, and there's a lot
more to it than that: "Love made fools of everyone. It was man's fate."
Or, as Vincent says a bit later, "Sometimes I think it's love and
sometimes I think it's sickness."
He says that about Misty, who is self-evidently Laurie Colwin in
not very thin disguise. "I am," Misty says not long after meeting
Vincent, "the scourge of God," and for quite a while she seems just
that. "I can't stand to do anything without a fight," she says, which
most emphatically includes falling in love: "Misty felt that life was a
battle. You had to fight and think. You had to hack your way through
life with your intelligence as a machete cutting down what obstacles you
could. You were born knowing nothing: you had to fight for what you
knew." But persistent Vincent is a fighter, too, and after some time --
not to mention some roller-coaster emotional swoops -- he wins her. At
dinner they tell Guido and Holly that they are going to get married:
"There are going to be thousands of dinners like this, thought
Misty. This is my place at the dinner table. This is my intended
husband's best friend and that is the wife of my intended's best friend
whom I am going to spend the rest of my life getting to know. Across the
table, Vincent looked seraphically happy. How wonderful everything
tasted, Misty thought. Everything had a sheen on it. Was that what love
did, or was it merely the wine? She decided that it was love.
"It was just as she suspected: love turned you into perfect mush."
In that passage as in every page of "Happy All the Time," Laurie
draws close to the line of sentimentality and then pulls sharply back.
Happy yes, sappy no. Misty speaks for Laurie as well as for herself when
she tells Vincent: "You believe in happy endings. I don't. You think
everything is going to work out fine. I don't. You think everything is
ducky. I don't. . . . I come from a family that fled the Czar's army,
got their heads broken on picket lines, and has never slept peacefully
anywhere." What gives Laurie's fiction its distinctiveness, what rescues
it over and over again from mere romance, is the tough-mindedness at its
What I said in reviewing "Family Happiness" applies equally to
"Happy All the Time" and all the rest of Laurie's work: "Though [it]
gives a first impression of modesty and even sentimentality, the reader
is best advised to beware: darker matters lurk beneath its glittering
surface, and a wry appreciation of life's ambiguities." The four people
she gives us in "Happy All the Time" can fairly be described as nice,
but she never allows them the easy way out. The marriages they make are
the keys to their happiness, but marriage can be dull and quotidian, as
Misty discovers not long after the vows are spoken. Even when she's
happy, she has to work at it:
"The big surprise that marriage to Vincent had sprung on her was
contentment. She had moments of desolation and moments of great joy, but
underneath was some steady current of feeling. Misty's propensity toward
pessimism and Vincent's toward optimism really did complement. Vincent
was no less cheerful, and Misty was only slightly less judgmental, but
they seemed to have formed a third person who smoothed out their edges
and made life together possible and profitable. Misty excepted Vincent
from the rest of human kind. He had his faults, but he was genuinely
kind and true. He played fair and was generous. The difference between
them was that Vincent really did believe that things worked out for the
best and Misty did not."
So: a wise, bighearted book by a wise, bighearted writer. A deft
and funny one, too. Laurie could nail someone in a couple of sentences:
"Sybel was a modern dancer who also studied mime. She was a vegetarian
and took a brand of vitamin pills that could be obtained only in New
Jersey." Or: "Arnold Milgrim was a small, muscular man. His suit looked
as if it had been reduced to scale to fit a box turtle. He wore small,
polished loafers and socks that were the deep red of arterial blood. He
was bald and his face had the naked, political sensuality seen on the
busts of Roman generals."
Laurie was not an autobiographical novelist in the received sense
of the term, but her fiction closely followed the pattern of her life.
The early stories and the novel "Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object"
(1975) are about young love, its pleasure and pain. "Happy All the Time"
and "Family Happiness" are about marital and familial love. The story
collection "Another Marvelous Thing" (1986) and the posthumous novel "A
Big Storm Knocked It Over" (1994) are about motherhood and mother love.
Had she been given more time, it seems a safe bet that she would have
written more and more about childhood and adolescence, and about the
small nuclear family. She reshaped her own experience into books that
touch others; she worked on a small scale but made the universal out of
She was granted less than a quarter-century of writing, from her
first published story in 1969 to her death 23 years later, but she made
the most of it: 10 sublime books that are still in the stores, still
bringing happiness, Colwin-style, into the world. In time there will be
one more. A collection of her letters is in the works, publication date
unknown. As one who was fortunate enough to receive some of these, I can
give you a pre-publication review: It will be yet another marvelous
"Happy All the Time" is available in a Perennial paperback ($13).
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.