Family Happiness (re-read)

I’m literally months behind on reviews, and some books I read in the past few months I’ll probably just allow to pass unremembered, but I can’t let 2010 go by without remarking on my re-read of one of my favorite novels in the world, Laurie Colwin’s Family Happiness. Re-reads of beloved novels can be dicey, and I approached this one with my eyes half-closed. What if it wasn’t as good as I remembered? What if it was just the time in my life, something that resonated then and wouldn’t now? What if this book wasn’t my friend any more?

But I needn’t have feared. I got this copy off of Bookmooch, and the cover is the worst imaginable: a torrid, romance-novel, bodice-ripping, just-out-of-bed scene that doesn’t represent either the book or my reading tastes at all. I didn’t care. I carried it around campus with me and read it every chance I got, slowly, savoring it, delighting. I figured if anyone asked, I could have the pleasure of introducing them to the pleasure of this book.

Family Happiness is the story of Polly Solo-Miller Demarest. She comes from a wealthy, relentlessly quirky family of New York Jews, and she has happily married the man she always thought she would marry. She and Henry have produced two wonderful children, and Polly — the only sane, cheerful, good member of her family — manages everything: delicious meals, parent-teacher conferences, a job, a peaceful home, and weekly family reunions at which she juggles food aversions, vegetarianism, kosher requirements, and family tradition with aplomb. How could anyone guess that Polly, who has never been anything but good, is conducting a love affair?

Polly met Lincoln Bennett, an artist, at an exhibit of his pictures. Minutes after they met, she knew she loved him; it took only a few weeks for them to admit their passion and act on it. Now she is utterly torn. She can’t live without him, without his tenderness, his delight in her. Good people don’t do this sort of thing. But she’s good, and she’s doing it. What’s wrong with her?

This novel considers the question: how far can family happiness take you? What does it mean to want a little of your own happiness? Polly is no feminist; other characters in the novel appear to have heard of the women’s movement, but Polly has been raised by her parents to be a functionary, to provide something delicious for dessert, to be sturdy, upright, and cheerful. But as her guilt wracks her, she begins to ask why she need be wracked — what goodness means, what happiness truly is, what she herself really needs — and if you’re used to the formula of some chick lit, the ending to the novel is deliciously unexpected.

I can’t praise Laurie Colwin’s writing enough. I’m a huge fan (as you’ll know if you’ve been reading here a while.) She is funny without being manic, tender without being soppy, witty without being savage. Polly’s predicament resonated with me on a level I would never have expected, and even as I laughed over the genuinely funny characters, I could see what was real about this story. This is probably my very favorite of her novels, though others are in strong competition, and it was a pure joy to read.

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13 Responses to Family Happiness (re-read)

  1. Deb says:

    I love Laurie Colwin’s two books of memoirs/cookbooks, HOME COOKING and MORE HOME COOKING. Her sudden death at a young age (she was 48 when she had a fatal heart attack) was a great loss.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, I agree wholeheartedly. More Home Cooking is the only thing I have left to read by Colwin, and I think I keep putting it off because I don’t want a world where there’s nothing new left by her.

  2. Patty says:

    Hmmm…this book sounds sort of interesting…but there are so many on my list…

  3. Dorothy W. says:

    Well, this inspires me to seek her out! between you and Litlove and others who have praised her, I’m very curious.

    • Jenny says:

      I’d be thrilled if this inspired you! I’m always trying to get people to read Colwin — so far with not much success, maybe because the plots don’t sound very exciting. It’s the writing that sucks you in, really, I promise. Can’t wait to hear what you think.

  4. Kathleen says:

    I’ve never heard of this book or the author but based on your review I am adding the book to my list for future reading. I’ll be very interested in the unexpected ending and I also like that the book deals with characters who are living in the “gray” world where everything is not always so black and white.

    • Jenny says:

      Exactly. Colwin does wonderfully with ambiguity, and though her characters have quirks, they’re never annoying. At least not to me. I hope you love it!

  5. Jeanne says:

    Since I didn’t love this one as much as you did, perhaps I need a recommendation for the one by her that you think is least like it.

    • Jenny says:

      Ha! Well, her memoir/ cookbooks (Home Cooking and More Home Cooking) are not like this at all. And if you want a novel, you could try Goodbye Without Leaving, which is about a white woman who has always wanted to be backup singer for a touring soul group. Quite different. Was it the writing you didn’t like, or the plot that annoyed you?

      • Jenny says:

        I just read your review, and it was the adultery that annoyed you! Well, then, Happy All the Time or A Big Storm Knocked it Over should be fine for you to read. Equally fun writing, but no snarly cheating. :)

  6. Jeanne says:

    Thanks– I got an earlier recommendation for Happy All the Time, so I’m going to start interlibrary loan in action for that one first.

  7. bybee says:

    I really love this novel as well as another one she wrote called Happy All The Time.

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