Monday, April 16, 2007

Whose Life, and How Does it Look? "Family Happiness, by Laurie Colwin

Recently a friend told me Laurie Colwin’s wonderful book, “Family Happiness,” had made him want to be in New York, “living that life.” I thought little of it, at the time. After all, countless books, movies, magazines, probably even a post it note or two, make me think “I want to be in New York, living that life,” and it’s a book I’ve loved for a long time. Rereading it this week though, I found myself wondering, which of these lives had he meant?

“Family Happiness,” originally published in 1982, is the story of Polly Solo-Miller Demarest, a happily married young mother of two, from an old, uptown Jewish family, who has astonished herself by falling in love with a downtown painter. Polly and her particular life the novel’s heart and soul, but it’s real richness comes from all the life around her. She comes from a large and at times difficult family, but Colwin resists the trap of allowing any of its members to fall into cliché. However briefly a character enters the story, she grants us a clear sense of who that person is, and what sort of life he or she is leading.

Mary Rensberg, for instance, a minor character who plays a major role when Polly’s at her lowest, is described as “small wiry, and blonde. She smoked unfiltered cigarettes, wore men’s shirts, real silk stockings, and diamond earrings. In her conversations she was heavy and slangy; she swore constantly. Every Sunday she went to church in the company of her teen-aged daughters, Dulcie and Daisy.” Mary also owns a little antique shop, which is apparently a great success, despite her inclination to tell callers that “Mrs. Rensberg has gone to Brazil.” Colwin gives us just enough to know who Mary is, and why she’s there. She’s eminently familiar, and wildly exotic all at once. I’d definitely like to hang around with a woman like that. I might even be interested in a life like that. The stockings and the earrings, certainly. The daughters and the churchgoing, maybe not.

It’s Polly’s life we’re most engaged with here though. The middle child, and only girl, in her dynastic family, she married appropriately, and in a timely fashion, and has never thought to stray from the straight and narrow. Polly is, genuinely, cheerful and helpful and kind. She is, and always has been, upright and virtuous and true. This turns out to be a great advantage, when she begins her love affair, because no one ever thinks to question Polly’s coming’s and going’s in the slightest.

Polly has the sort of life my mother wishes I would have, or at least aspire to. Polly lives uptown somewhere (Colwin never tells us exactly where, but for Polly, my money’s on the West Side), in a big, beautiful apartment, with doormen and elevator men, and endless rooms. She’s married to Henry Demarest, a successful lawyer from a dynastic family of his own, and has two sweet, funny children. I don’t generally like children ,in books or life but even I like Polly’s two, so they must be pretty good. She works three days a week as a reading specialist for the city department of education. She wears cashmere and tweed, and shops at bakeries and little markets. She likes to cook, and secretly likes it when her children get “slightly out of hand.” She is sweet, smart, and funny. And she is having a love affair.

The object of Polly’s illicit affection is Lincoln Bennet, a downtown painter, who lives in something that sounds very like Westbeth, only older, “a row of studios that had been built for artists in the 1920s.” In general, his neighborhood sounds very West Villageish to me, but that’s really just a guess. When I hear the phrase, “downtown painter” I imagine someone grungy and annoying. Someone who talks endlessly about painting, what it means to him, how hard it is, how necessary, yet does remarkably little of it. Someone who lives in squalor, who never has any money, and cannot be relied upon to show up when he’s said he will. All in all, someone who will make for a very bad boyfriend.

Lincoln is none of those things. Of all the lives in “Family Happiness,“ it’s his I’d most like to have. He is that mythical beast, a successful painter. He has shows here, there, and everywhere. He paints things, and then he sells them, without a lot of tedious talk about it. Both he and his studio are clean and lovely. He is trustworthy and reliable. His only display of any quirkily artistic temperament is his prodigious love of solitude “only when he was alone did he feel really comfortable and authentically himself.” Before meeting Polly, he’d fallen in love with a girl named Audrey. Lincoln and Audrey had gotten engaged, and even moved in together. Everything should have been perfectly fine, except it wasn’t. “It was a disaster for Lincoln. Domesticity rummed against him like a hair shirt. How he could be so much in love and so miserable at the same time amazed him. It seemed overwhelmingly clear to him that he could not live with another person…” Audrey left him, as well she should have, all things considered, and Lincoln resigned himself to a loveless life. Then he met Polly. Really, a happily married lady couldn’t ask for a better boyfriend.

If anything about this book feels dated, it is the idea that a book about adultery doesn’t have to be a melodrama. Because Polly is, in fact, happily married. Her marriage is having a rough patch when she meets Lincoln, but it is nonetheless a pretty good one. It takes awhile for her to get there, but she ultimately concludes that, while the timing may have opened the door to her love for Lincoln, it’s existence doesn’t mean her marriage is dead. Nor does a reinvigoration of her marriage put her love affair neatly to rest. This isn’t a difficult book, but it is a complicated one. Colwin refuses to take any easy outs, and so denies them to her reader as well.

This book could have gone in easier directions. We’ve all read those books, haven’t we? There’s the book about the woman who thinks she’s happily married, till she meets some intriguing new man, realizes her marriage is lacking everything she holds most dear, and runs off to someplace hot and exotic with her lover. Or the book about the woman who’s marriage is saved, after pages and pages of therapy, soul searching, and dramatic fights, after her husband finds out about her affair, and ultimately realizes he drove her to her affair with his benign neglect. Or the book about the woman who finds herself through her affair, whatever that exactly means, but chooses to leave both husband and lover, to break free of her family too, and takes up something like pottery, or poetry, and find some new relationship and way of life entirely. All of it very clear, and simple. Things go one way or another. They work out, or they don’t, and either way, here’s what it looks like. But that’s just not how Colwin does things.

In “Family Happiness,” as in all her books, Lori Colwin sets out, successfully, to show us that life is neither so difficult, nor so uncomplicated, as we would like for it to be. Things get messy, and sometimes they stay that way. The trick isn’t learning to tidy up all the mess, it’s learning to live with a little chaos. Uncertainty is our constant state of being. As Lincoln tells Polly towards the novel’s end, “It’s pointless to wonder what will happen. We could both get very sick of this. Things could change.” And sooner or later, one way or another, of course, they will. Till then, Laurie Colwin would like us all to drink a little more champagne, and look our best, whatever we think that means.


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