Sunday, June 28, 2009

Family Happiness by Laurie Colwin

32. Family Happiness
by Laurie Colwin
fiction, 1982
paperback, 270 pages
finished, 6/16/09

Family and happiness are wonderful words, yet this book often made me feel sad. When we first meet the Solo-Millers, they seem so happy. They eat together on Sundays, they celebrate major and minor holidays, they vacation together in Maine. They are comprised of an older mother and father, and their three adult children and their families.

In general, the Solo-Millers preferred the company of their fellow Solo-Millers to that of other mortals, and they gathered frequently.

If you are part of such a family, or know this kind of family, you are aware that there are stresses and strains beneath the 'perfect' exterior. There is often a controlling parent or grandparent who 'requires' attendance. And not only physical attendance, but emotional and lifestyle attendance. One is accepted if one toes the line, lives the life, accepts all the rules. Dora Solo-Miller has always done so. She is the only daughter, and the child who holds everything and everybody together. It has always been her role, and she doesn't realize that she hasn't been appreciated until she begins an extramarital relationship with a painter named Lincoln. In fact, symbolically, he is the only person who calls her by her real name, not her family nickname which is Polly.

There are family idiosyncracies, which from the outside may seem endearing or cute. The father has a food 'thing' whereby his food must be washed with soap and water. The mother never gets names right.

It was a family joke that Polly had married a lawyer named Henry [the name of her father and her brother] in order not to give her mother anything to screw up.

Again, this is symbolic. Not only does her husband have the same name, but she is living the same kind of life in which she was raised. 'Her' Henry isn't a bad man. He is kind, and good with the children, but he works long hours. Polly has great kids and a part-time career, though her mother 'won't' learn what it is her daughter does, and is critical of the time she spends away from home. The mother, Wendy, spent way more time away from her own children but because she was doing volunteer 'good works' she thinks of herself as the 'better' mother. It may be easy for us to judge Polly: to say how dare she have an affair; how dare she feel badly about her life when she truly does have everything. Her husband even tries hard to change his work habits to make their life happier.

Family Happiness explores an adultery that is not shown in books or movies. Polly's infidelity is a release, an escape, not only from her husband but from the family she grew up in. It isn't simply a physical relationship, but her first real friendship outside of her family. I have seen this kind of family in action, and I have observed that it is nearly impossible to change either the people or the situation. What often happens is that a member will move far away. They must move because there is no use in confrontation. The parents or the grandparents will not change. Ever. That's just how it is. The only hope is distance, or in Polly's case, an affair. The man she comes to love will never be a threat to her 'family happiness.' He loves her, but he is a loner who values his solitary, artistic life beyond everything else. He will never demand she leave her husband (and family) for him. And Polly would never do so, though she suffers greatly living two lives. He truly does care for her, and sees her in a way her family never will. He gives her back herself, in a manner of speaking. He shows her how she has been treated, how she has been taken for granted, and how she really is as a person.

I believe Laurie Colwin was a genius. Her death at 48 years old in 1992 is a great loss to those who knew her, and also to her readers.


  1. I love the peony in your header!

  2. Thanks, Sherri. It'll probably be something new in the next few days. :<)

  3. I love the cover of the book. Sounds an interesting book. Family dynamics are a challenge.

    Hope you are well. We are way too hot, between 100-107 for the last few days. Thank goodness for A/C. Life continues on. I'll write more soon.

  4. Kay, I am so pleased to hear from you. I wonder if there are books - fiction or nonfiction - about the south/southwest in the days when air conditioning first appeared. A huge thing that really changed everything. The cover painting is Still-Life of Fruit in a Bowl by Louise Moillon (1610-1696).

  5. Laurie Colwin has been on my 'authors to read' list since you wrote about her several months ago. This does sound sad to me, too. Family dynamics can be a tough thing to negotiate. I'm off now for the weekly family at my sisters ;-)

  6. Another Laurie Colton I must read. Subject matter kind of reminds me of my own most recent blog post on my reaction to Gov. Sanford of South Carolina and all the comments it elicited.

    People have all kinds of feelings about such matters.

  7. Thanks for coming by JoAnn and Mary Lois. LC is so varied in her subject matter. But everything I read is touched with magic for me.

  8. Oh, I have always looked forward to reading this. I don't wish to run out of Laurie Colwin novels. It was terrible, losing her so young. She was so very perceptive and funny in the best possible way. I am always so aware of reading the last (for me) book by a dear author: The last Austen, Wharton...sigh. Sometimes I hoard the unread titles.

  9. I recently read this book too. I totally agree with your comments. Laurie Colwin has, as ever, written with great sensitivity. Many writers would be tempted to write with more fireworks about Polly's affair, but by resisting this we are able to see the layers of Polly's character, and the end result is that we care, we do not judge, we understand, with the help of this very special writer. Oh, how she is missed.

  10. I have her on my list to read, thank you.

  11. Wow, what a great book! It is too bad the title is so mundane and misleading.

  12. She died at 48?! What a shame. I have one of her books in my stack on my nightstand. I will read it this summer.

    So good to see a comment here from our Kay!! Hope it cools down for you, Kay. That's far too hot!!!!!!

  13. This book sounds like the book "Bridges of Madison County". I will certaineley pick it up for reading. I love a good book and don't usually buy it unless someone tells me to!

  14. Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking is a terrific book-with-recipes. Not quite a cookbook -- much better, in fact!

  15. Hello Nan!

    Thanks for the book review, and oh how beautiful your banner is!



  16. This sounds interesting - and I love the cover! I think my first Laurie Colwin(s) are going to be her food books. I am looking forward to getting to know her.

  17. June, I know exactly what you are talking about. I still have a few to read by her, and have one more on my shelves that I will most likely read soonish. Do you read mysteries? There are a couple series I've read that I think you would like: the Mrs Pollifax books by Dorothy Gilman; and the Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters. Great writing, great stories, and great women!

    Carole, I love, love what you wrote. I wish you had a blog so more people could read your great writing. You express yourself wonderfully. I may start doing co-reviews with you!

    Cait, if you do a search on my blog, you'll find some other LC books I've read. Wonderful writer.

    Gigi, I fear I've given the wrong impression. I had the hardest time writing this book report. The title is actually perfect for the book. It is ironic, but it is also right and real.

    Blessed with Four, and Les - she had heart failure and died in her sleep. More about her here:

    Linda, I've read 'Bridges' and I never thought of this comparison, but you are right. Each concerns a woman who truly loves two men. I think you'd like Family Happiness, and her other work. My favorite so far, other than her nonfiction cooking books, is Happy All the Time. You may find the review by doing a search on the blog.

    Karen, I loved that book, and wrote about it here:

    Beverly, thanks for coming by. That ol' banner changes often these days!

    Tara, as you may know, I began with the cooking books, and am now reading her fiction. What a wonderful, wonderful woman and writer.


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