FROM THE SEEMINGLY self-evident observation that "people never are what you think they are," Laurie Colwin has fashioned a novel that is utterly delightful (the temptation to fall back on that venerable reviewer's standby, "captivating," is in this instance quite extreme) and considerably more complex than her previous work might lead one to expect. Family Happiness is sophisticated, funny, knowing, clear-eyed, intricate; it is also -- and this is what gives real weight to it -- down-to-earth, compassionate and entirely affecting. In three words: I love it.

I also -- and this is my problem, not Laurie Colwin's -- feel an involuntary compulsion to apologize for responding so strongly and positively to it. In the first place, Family Happiness is about people who are more than prosperous, who live at excellent addresses in the Borough of Manhattan, and who into the bargain are members "of old, old Jewish families, the sort that are more identifiably old American than Jewish"; obviously, there's nothing to be said about these people that could possibly have any relevance to the human condition in our time, and the way we live now, and all that. In the second place, Colwin commits the twin sins of writing facile prose that goes down as easily as parfait and of publishing short stories in journals that are known, generically, as "women's magazines"; obviously, she can have nothing to say about the human condition . . . etc., etc.,

Well, if any apology is due it is to Laurie Colwin, for so reflexively and superficially pigeonholing her work and its subject. Though Family Happiness 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 that one does not expect to encounter in the pages of Vogue. The novel -- its title is most emphatically, if not stridently, ironic -- is an examination of familial ties that strangle as well as bind, of the excruciating pain of finding happiness, of the conflicting pressures that strong desires can exert.

At the center of Family Happiness is Polly Demarest, wife of Henry Demarest, mother of Pete and Dee-Dee Demarest, daughter of Henry and Wendy Solo-Miller. She is heir to a tradition of "harmony, generosity and good works," she believes in "service, children and books," and she is just about perfect: "She was open and straightforward and generally full of conversation. It was her job to give attention, not to be the center of it." Which is just as well, for Polly is passionately in love with an artist named Lincoln Bennett, she is sneaking off in the afternoon to make love with him, and she is right in the middle of hell on earth:

"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. Small mistakes were emblematic of terrible flaws. Suddenly the truth was revealed: These flaws were chasms, magnified and compounded. The heroine was then exiled from optimism, cheer, security, and the safety of the right thing. 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 felt, or if they had, they had triumphed over it in secret. Her distress frightened her . . . It was what allowing herself to fall in love revealed: that everything was wrong."

Or, as Polly remarks to a younger friend who hopes for an "interesting" life, "I've just been having one and you wouldn't wish it on a dog." From a lifetime of security within the bosom of her sedate, self-contained, isolated family, Polly has been plunged into a terra incognita of emotional turbulence. As she blurts out on another occasion: "I used to hink: Isn't it fortunate that my life is so orderly and nice? I didn't think there would be much to discover. I hate discovering new things about myself. They didn't say in the magazines that it hurt this much. No one in my family has had to do it. Why do I?" Polly Demarest, meet Anna Karenina.

But it is a measure of the complexity of this novel that although what could be described (much too glibly) as Polly's "liberation" is its central subject, and though its treatment of her emotional awakening is thoroughly positive, Colwin offers no sermons and no easy answers. Polly's passionate love for Lincoln Bennett is enormously important, but so too -- and no less so -- are her wifely love for the "patient and dogged" Henry Demarest, her motherly love for her children, her familial love for her parents and even her exasperating brothers, her pride in being a Solo-Miller and her loyalty to the values the family treasures. There may be times when she agrees with Lincoln, that "your family was put on earth to make everybody, including you, feel like hell," but she also knows that the truth is more complicated:

"In the Solo-Miller family love was intelligent and deep, and never unrequited. It was the basis of all good things and there was nothing secretive or covert about it. Love flourished in the sunshine, in public, in ceremony and ritual. It did not have to hide. It was the binding of life, the glue of families. The kind of love Polly felt for Lincoln was not the kind of which the Solo-Millers ever could have approved. It was feckless, led to nothing, was productive of nothing, and didn't do anyone a bit of good. Love stood for ties and binds, for the things that made life work. The Solo-Millers were not against romantic feelings, but against romantic feelings improperly placed."

That paragraph is entirely typical of the tone that Colwin manages to sustain from beginning to end: gently ruminative, quietly amused, slightly distant. Her prose has a soft and hypnotic lilt to it, one that she gives heightened rhythm to with small, quick bursts of wit and/or insight. Her affection for her characters is palpable and infectious; as in her previous novel, Happy All the Time, she is writing about demonstrably "nice" people whose lives have more depth than we expect or they realize, and she likes them as much for the surprises in store for them as for their fundamental decency. She knows that families are flawed and often destructive, but also: "The family was the beginning, the future and the past. It protected the weak and the strong. It brought the like-minded together and gave the unalike a common cause. It gave shelter and hope. What more, Polly wondered, could a sensible person possibly want?"

And what more could a sensible reader want than what Laurie Colwin offers in Family Happiness? Okay: it's not Anna Karenina, nor is it The House of Mirth or A Lost Lady. But comparisons will get you nowhere. There is much to be said for novels, or works of art of any kind, that deliver more than they seem to promise. Family Happiness is one of these: a wonderful surprise for which I find myself enormously grateful. 00:1500000084: