Laurie Colwin: The smile and the blade

To be binary about this, there are two types of readers in the world. The first, in response to the question “Have you ever read Laurie Colwin?” », Answers:« No ». The other guy ignites like a gas jet and sighs, “Ohhhhh. Laurie Colwin.

Over the past 40 years or so, I have bonded with the second type of reader and given titles from Colwin’s books to the first, The Uninitiated, which often doesn’t seem convinced. After all, most of Colwin’s titles are so modest that they hardly bother to attract a potential reader. What kind of writer gives his second novel the Hallmark Channel title “Happy All the Time” (1978) and then compounds the error by calling it the next “Family Happiness” (1982)? What is all this happiness? Serious writers shouldn’t be so happy. Equally disappointing are the titles of Colwin’s revered collections of culinary writings: “Home Cooking”, which came out in 1988, and “More Home Cooking”, which was published posthumously in 1993.

Laurie Colwin: Complete Novels & Stories

  • Passion and Affect (1974)
  • Shine On, bright and dangerous object (1975)
  • Happy all the time (1978)
  • The lonely pilgrim (nineteen eighty one)
  • Family happiness (1982)
  • Another wonderful thing (1988)
  • Goodbye without leaving (1990)
  • A big storm knocked him down (1993)

It is this “posthumously” that always rings false. Colwin’s voice is so alive; her stories are so funny and touching that it seems unreal that the world she tells ceased to be contemporary three decades ago. Colwin died in her sleep in 1992 at the age of 48 from a heart attack. She left behind her husband, Juris Jurjevics, founder of Soho Press (who died in 2018) and her then 8-year-old child, now known as RF Jurjevics, who is also a writer. Colwin also left five novels, three collections of short stories and these two collections of culinary writings. A prolific production for a middle-aged writer, but for those of us like “Ohhhhh, Laurie Colwin”, it can’t be enough.

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Colwin’s books have always remained in print, although good paperback editions were sometimes difficult to find. This situation started to change this year. To mark the 30th anniversary of Colwin’s death, two publishing houses, Vintage and Harper, began reissuing his complete works in a uniform cross edition. The project began with a reissue of “Happy All the Time” which features a fierce embrace from a foreword by novelist Katherine Heiny. Reprints will end with Colwin’s very first books: his collection of short stories “Passion and Affect” (1974) and his first novel, “Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object” (1975).

To understand the lasting reverence for Colwin, consider these passages from her fiction in which she pinches her personality and mood much like a toothpick secures the stuffing in her famous roast chicken recipe. Here is the heroine of “A Big Storm Knocked It Over” (1993) observing a selfish author named Hugh Oswald-Murphy: “He was very tall. His huge head was held between two huge shoulders. You felt that if he had been stripped of his flesh, two women of average height could have played gin rummy in his rib cage. . . . He gave her an attractive look, more in the direction of her bra.

Imperfect men were a subject, along with family dynamics and food, that brought out Colwin’s most formidable powers. In the short story “The Boyish Lover,” Colwin’s narrator makes an Easter lunch with the wealthy Spaacks family unforgettable: “Senior Spaacks presided over, carving the tough flint ducks, smiling the kind of grim smile you see on dead bodies. freshly killed. “

Although I have revisited Colwin’s books in a scattered fashion over the decades since their first publication, to reread his entire canon 30 years after its abrupt end is to be immersed in a memory of things past. Colwin, like most predominantly comic writers, focuses on well-observed details of everyday life, many of which have changed dramatically. Its Manhattan, dotted with cafes, wooden phone booths, and helpful neighborhood florists, is much closer to the cityscape that EB White touted in his classic little 1949 book “Here Is New York” than anything we can imagine. could meet now. Food emporiums and ethnic restaurants were barely a spark in New York’s eye when Colwin began writing in the mid-1970s. So in “Happy All the Time”, when his two well-heeled male protagonists, the cousins ​​Guido Morris and Vincent Cardworthy, meet for their weekly lunch in Guido’s office, their extravaganza is to dine on a boxed seafood bisque.

If you want the more gritty, economically depressed and dangerous New York of the 1970s, there are many novels (“The Flamethrowers” by Rachel Kushner) and memoirs (“Just Kids” by Patti Smith) that can transport you there. Colwin didn’t do a grunge.

The subject that Colwin did brilliantly in his novels and short stories was the pursuit of happiness, led primarily by upper-middle-class Jewish women, plagued by a variant of what Betty Friedan called “The Problem That Didn’t.” no name”. A cosmic feeling of “not enough” haunts these complicated characters who, despite having relationships and careers, still yearn for something they cannot express. Take Geraldine Coleshares, the heroine of “Goodbye Without Leaving” (1990). Years before the novel’s opening, Geraldine was pulled out of her stagnant life as a graduate student when she was hired as “a Shakette,” a backing vocalist to Ruby and Vernon Shakely, who look a lot like Ike and Tina. Turner. The fact that Colwin makes this deliverance fantasy utterly believable is another testament to his powers.

After Geraldine’s Time In The Spotlight Wearing The “DayGlo Dress[es] with bangs’ ends, she eventually finds another job, gets married and has a child; but she is troubled by a permanent lack, missing her irreplaceable experience on stage: “To be oneself without effort is a blessing, an ambrosia. It’s like a few tiny puffs of opium that lift you very lightly off the hard surface of the world.

“Goodbye Without Leaving” is striking being Colwin’s only novel where his white characters share the stage, so to speak, with people of color. The discussions about race in this novel fall under the category of “well-meaning”, but the language creaks: – have not aged well.

Nowhere is Colwin’s padded world, its codes and its rewards; his power to pulverize outliers to dust – more richly portrayed than in the novel, many readers, including myself, consider his best, “Family Happiness.” The title is ironic. Polly, our heroine, “was the perfect flower of the Solo-Miller family, an” old, old “Jewish clan who live on the Upper East Side and prefer” the company of their Solo-Miller companions to that of other mortals. ” While Polly loves her husband, her kids and her job, she is distressed by her ongoing affair with an artist named Lincoln Bennett. At one point, Polly unloads her load to her friend Martha and fears her troubles (amidst his privileges) are not “real problems.” Martha’s response is implicitly addressed to those who criticize Colwin’s subjects for being unimportant: “This is not disease or heartache. It’s the kind of misery you have to afford the luxury of, but that doesn’t make it any less miserable or less serious.

Colwin’s wisdom about this “kind of misery” comes from those sneaky, straightforward sentences that I and so many other admirers keep rereading, trying to decipher to find the source of their magic. Now that I have reached the age of the mothers of her protagonists (rarely benign creatures in Colwin’s fiction), I miss the novels she could have written where older heroines struggle with lingering feelings of inauthenticity. As Colwin surely felt, this urge for the “fringed DayGlo dress” never completely subsides.

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