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.