Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Happy All the Time

I have no idea why this book has accompanied me through my life. For over forty years, when I first read it in a novella form in Redbook magazine, then as the longer novel that emerged in 1978, I have loved Laurie Colwin's Happy All the Time with a fierce and unconditional passion. I have bought and given it away more times than I can count. When I have lived without it for a few years, I have to buy it again--most recently at the beautiful new site of Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Company. I knew it would be there, waiting for me, under a slant of sun from the store's skylight, and it was.

I've read it as a young mother in Fairbanks, Alaska, as a woman living out a long-delayed adolescence in her forties, and as a sixty-plus expat in Bangkok. It has always absorbed me and delighted me and I have never asked why--until now. I don't love romantic novels that sparkle on the surface and have very little plot. I don't usually cherish characters who speak in short, crisp, almost utilitarian sentences. And I would detest any one of the four central figures in this book should I ever meet them off the page.

Guido Morris, Vincent Cardworthy, Holly Sturgis and Misty Berkowitz are all in their own singular fashions, perfect. They are physically attractive, accomplished and they can cook. They love fine art--in fact their lives are works of fine art. Each of them could be a small jade figurine. They fall in love and they marry and they "keep the ugly, chaotic world at bay." Their Manhattan is one of charming little restaurants and dark, genteel bars and the occasional museum. Even parenthood is perfection. Why are they not absurd? Or at least very, very dull?

Perhaps because Misty and Holly are perfect but they are difficult--and proud of it. "I am the scourge of God," Misty tells Vincent. "I was made for Attila the Hun." Holly, Guido comes to understand, is "Genghis Khan in emotional matters." And so is Laurie Colwin.

This is a writer who takes as her territory an entire Great Lake of thin ice and skates on it with aplomb and complete enjoyment. Her plot is romantic, her men would like to be, her women never are. In what should be a paradise of happily ever after, her heroines are equipped with a detached and loving irony that pervades and eventually takes over the entire book.

So does a gentle and laser-beamed satire. Although never focused upon the two couples whose book this is, the peripheral figures in their lives are fleeting and unforgettable. They are skewered and examined and put aside, without cruelty or caricature. Alive and indelible, they glitter in some undiscovered universe, waiting for their own novel.

Laurie Colwin specialized in that. A short story would become two or three, all with the same characters, then a novella, then a novel. Her gift was to provide the full bodies for her characters within the first story. The details came later, and when they did, the people they embellished were remembered as old friends--"Now where did I meet you? You're the one who takes off your gloves with your teeth."

Her books sparkle and gleam and at first they seem all patina, no core. They're much like the novels of another woman who said of her own writing, "the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory." Yet hundreds of years later, Jane and Bingham, Elizabeth and Darcy, still pull readers to their pages again and again and again. So do Guido and Holly, Vincent and Misty, in a fairy tale with an edge, in a satire laced with deep and abiding love.

6 comments:

Amanda said...

must go out and get a copy!

Katia said...

Should I be ashamed to admit that I have never heard of the book, nor of the author ? Will check them out. Beautifully written, Janet, as always...

janet brown said...

If you were here, I would give you mine, Amanda--that's what you're supposed to do with this book! But Amazon may have used copies.

janet brown said...

Katia--nobody has heard of Laurie Colwin, except for a few discriminating readers! I'd be interested in what you think of her--she's very American, very out-of-her-time. She died in the 90's, still rather young. If she could have written beyond the age of 44, I think she would be better known now. She's a deceptive writer--because she can be read with such pleasure, it's easy to think she's just a bit of fluff. But she's not.

nancy said...

I love this homage! I have been reading Laurie Colwin since college (1980s), as she was recommended to me by me writing teacher, Lorrie Moore. This has always surprised me because LM is such a different type of writer than LC (I prefer LC's style and heart). So nice to find some of the LC love strewn across the interwebs. Thank you so much for this!

janet brown said...

Thank you, Nancy. Have you found the Facebook page Laurie Colwin's daughter stated in honor of her mother? Very sweet.