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The Sneaky Subversiveness of Laurie Colwin

Helping the heroines move toward marital bliss and doting motherhood are their best friends. Colwin writes passionately about the affection and trust that bind female confidantes. The girlfriends aren’t merely extras, there to listen patiently to the heroines’ woes. They share star billing and stumble through their own dating dramas.

The friend is often neurotic, cranky and incapable of social niceties. “Rich people make me sick,” Misty Berkowitz declares in “Happy All the Time.” She suffers from a sense of being a permanent outsider and wears an expression that her WASPy future husband calls “the only Jew at the dinner table look.” But her idiosyncrasies are charming rather than alarming, and she falls in love despite herself, while still delivering some of the novel’s most deliciously nasty takedowns of her fellow urbanites’ foibles and pretensions. These straight-shooting chums arrive in a scene with fireworks of sassy dialogue worthy of Nora Ephron or Fran Lebowitz. Colwin herself is no slouch in the cultural mockery department; she has great fun with new fads and peppers her fiction with dead-on physical descriptions (“He was tall and cool and had the lean sort of mouth more experienced women know marks a deep sensualist who doesn’t kiss very much”).

In “A Big Storm Knocked It Over,” Colwin’s last novel, the world’s problems creep in more aggressively. The best friend runs a catering business with her boyfriend, with whom she lives secretly since the interracial couple dread the disapproval of their horrible families. The novel that Colwin was writing at the time of her death was said to be a dramatic departure from previous work, and it’s enticing to imagine that she might have engaged more with the casual racism the couple in “A Big Storm Knocked It Over” encounter, or even entertained some non-heterosexual pairings. In the conventionality of the matches her fiction most shows its age, although there’s something rather mistily nostalgic about the Manhattan of limitless marital possibility that she recalls, if it ever really existed. (So many handsome, solvent, straight, single men! So many spacious, affordable apartments with fireplaces!) Still, it’s hard to picture her deviating from her conviction that real families are not families of origin, but the ones lovers forge with each other, and with like-minded, accepting friends.

Joy is frightening because it feels so fragile. A man in “Passion and Affect” muses that his family life is “a loveliness so intense he wondered how he contained it.” Why, Colwin demands, should happiness be deemed too trivial a subject for fiction? She gets close to an ars poetica on this subject in “More Home Cooking”: “What is more interesting than how people live? I personally can’t think of anything. Maybe war, or death or something, but not to me.” Colwin, who volunteered as a cook in a shelter for homeless women, scorns egotistic urban power couples hungry for prestige; she’s much more indulgent toward lovers who leave their nest for the Sunday newspaper (pre-internet!), divvy up the sections over breakfast, then tumble back into bed.

An unusual aspect of a Colwin courtship is how confident the women are about their attractions, how frankly and unapologetically libidinous. Olly Bax, widowed at 27 in “Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object,” is in mourning, but also finds herself “torn up with pure lust,” first for her brother-in-law and then for another man. Although Polly Solo-Miller Demarest in “Family Happiness” feels flummoxed enough about her affair to look to “Anna Karenina” for life advice, the novel puzzles her: “Did nice people ever feel this miserable?” Polly loves her husband and children, but also adores the sexy artist who dotes on her at their lunchtime assignations.

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