I don’t remember how I stumbled across Laurie Colwin, but I consider her the best author discovery I’ve made in years. When I read my first novel by her (A Big Storm Knocked It Over — and doesn’t she have the best titles?) I can clearly remember realizing mid-book that I had an absolute treasure in my hands. I’m a fast reader, but I slow down for Colwin: she died prematurely of a heart attack in 1992, and so when I’m finished reading her five novels, three short story collections, and two cookbook/memoirs, there will never be a new Laurie Colwin for me to read.
It was to my complete delight, then, that I finally got hold of Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object, the only novel of hers I had left to read. Colwin’s books are witty and poignant, bittersweet and gentle and biting. They are about affairs and marriages, couples and families and friends, evolving relationships and growing distance. They’re about cultural Jews in New York and Episcopalians from Boston and the essential importance of music and love. And if I’m making them sound cliched or sentimental, fear not. Laurie Colwin doesn’t do sentimental, even when she is showing what sentiment does to us.
Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object is the story of Elizabeth “Olly” Bax, whose sunny, careless, wild-hearted husband Sam dies in a boating accident in the first chapter of the book, leaving her a widow at twenty-seven. Her recovery is the rest of the story. Her way of seeing others changes; her way of understanding herself and her own needs changes; she does things you won’t expect or even necessarily approve of, but they all ring marvelously true.
The writing is deceptively comfortable. It is beautiful and tender without being writerly; it runs on and on like the real speech in our minds. It’s true without being striking, and revealing without stripping naked. For instance:
Sam was to be cremated, as he had once told me was his wish, but his ashes were not going to be scattered over the Yucatan peninsula, as was also his wish. He was going to the family plot in Moss Hill, Massachusetts. Sam would have liked a monster booze-up and a little keening, since his sentimental preferences ran to the loud and garish. He had once been to a wake — one of the great parties of his life, he said.
I wish I had space to quote the rest of the funeral. After 15 pages of the book, and never having met Sam at all, I cried for his loss. That’s Laurie Colwin.
I kind of feel like I’ve given away one of my best literary secrets today! I’d love to hear if you’ve read anything by Laurie Colwin and whether or not you love her, too. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone else who’s ever read her books. Solidarity! And I recommend Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object, not just enthusiastically, but affectionately.