Passion and Affect, a collection of absurdly wonderful short stories by Laurie Colwin, was published in 1974. Oddly, it’s the first thing Colwin published and the last fiction of hers I’ve read, or will ever read: she died in 1992, unexpectedly, of a heart attack. She was only 48 years old.
I risk sounding a little weird when I try to tell you how good I think her books are. They are, for me, just the right combination of things: wry without being distanced, touching without being sappy, funny without being manic. They are about love, for the most part. Love between friends and family, between lovers, between parents and children, employers and secretaries. They acknowledge the distance between people — how little we can ever really know each other — while cheerfully, peacefully bridging distances with tenderness. I can never make up my mind which of her novels I like best: Family Happiness, about a woman who finds space away from her crushingly quirky family only when she falls (extramaritally) in love; Happy All the Time, about two couples who gently battle their way to peace, despite the obstacles in their way; Goodbye Without Leaving, about a woman who dreams of being the only white backup singer in a touring soul group. They are all about longing, and relationships, and love.
The stories in Passion and Affect are the same. The title story, along with “The Girl With the Harlequin Glasses,” was later expanded and reworked into Happy All the Time. Otherwise, these are new to me. “The Big Plum” might be the best of them: the story of Harry, a supermarket manager getting his degree in art history. He spends his nights staring at one of the checkers, who reminds him of a Vermeer painting, and imagining her life outside the market. The story reveals its layers slowly, almost lazily, to inspection. “Children, Dogs, and Desperate Men” is another of these, in which Elizabeth, on the rebound from a painful breakup, finds herself entangled with a married man — and part of her likes it. This story didn’t end the way I thought it was going to. Or try “A Road in Indiana,” which chronicles the marriage of Pat and Richard:
On the shelf above the stereo there was a picture of herself and Richard, taken by a friend. They were sitting on a sofa, and Richard’s arm was around her. He was medium-sized and wiry, with shiny black hair, straight teeth, and a mustache. Next to him in the photo, she felt she looked flimsy and insubstantial. She was wearing and still wore what Richard called “baby sweaters” and her legs in their boots twisted around one another. In the photo, he looked as if he were Architecture, and she was a random, flying buttress he was supporting.
I was surprised that so many of these stories were told from the male point of view. I think I’m used to women writers writing from the female point of view, and several of Colwin’s novels are written that way. But I wasn’t surprised for long. I didn’t have time for surprise, with all the delight I felt reading the stories, and the sadness I felt at approaching the end of the very last Laurie Colwin book I had left. Now I will have to read them all again from the beginning. What a fate.
Read more about Laurie Colwin in this lovely article from Jonathan Yardley at the Washington Post (registration required, I think):