As impossible as it may seem, people can be happy, sometimes in spite of themselves. The two couples at the center of Laurie Colwin’s novel Happy All the Time find that happiness doesn’t come easily, but it does come. The men, Guido and Vincent, are cousins. When the book begins, they aren’t anywhere close to settling down, but once they meet the right women, they want them immediately and forever. The women, Holly and Misty, are not so sure. The book details their courtships and early days of their lives together as they try to learn to be happy together.
Although the two courtships follow a similar pattern in which an ardent man pursues a reluctant woman, the four people involved have different characters and different reasons for feeling as they do. The precision and care Colwin takes in drawing these four people is one of the great pleasures of the novel. The women are more interesting characters than the men, but all four are given plenty of life. Guido is responsible and steady and wants to settle down. Holly is precise and meticulous and wants everything the way she wants it, even if it doesn’t quite suit others. Vincent is driven by the passion of the moment, but he’s capable of great loyalty and persistence. Misty is often sullen and detached, but she feels deeply and is easily hurt. These people, with these personalities, can’t come together easily, but when they do, it works—mostly.
My own favorite character was Misty, who describes herself as “the scourge of God” and keeps her distance from Vincent for as long as she can. Vincent continues to pursue her, and it’s clear that inside she enjoys the pursuit. This isn’t, I must make clear, one of those relationships where an aggressive man wears down a reluctant woman by force of will. He’s charming and sweet and willing to go at her pace—all pushes forward are gentle. Misty is the one in control of the relationship, even if she isn’t entirely control of herself, as she realizes when Vincent makes her coffee after their first night together.
Vincent made a wonderful cup of coffee. It was one of his few kitchen skills. That cup of coffee surprised Misty. She leaned back against her pillows and drank it slowly. It was little things that did you in, she thought. She did not mean to lean over and kiss Vincent on the shoulder, but she did. This made her cross, so she gulped down her coffee, threw the covers at Vincent, and stalked off to take a shower.
Under the water, she considered her position. Sex, she knew, was something that could not be lied about. Had she followed her true inclinations, she would have been back in bed with Vincent. There was no hiding true desire, so he probably knew it. This, however, did not mean he had to know anything else. Why, she wondered, was caginess so dear to her? Why did she protect herself so closely?
Holly, on the other hand, was a more difficult character for me to take. It’s not that I didn’t like her or that I couldn’t understand her. It’s more that I wasn’t entirely convinced that her relationship with Guido could continue to be happy. Holly created a beautiful home, and she and Guido share many wonderful times in that home. But a couple of times in the book, Holly suddenly decides she needs to leave. The first time, Guido comes home to find her packing a bag, getting ready to go to France. She tells Guido,
Life has been very perfect lately. It’s so perfect I find it a little frightening. I almost can’t see it. I think we need an artificial break. I think we need to be apart just for a little bit. I’m afraid that if one of us doesn’t do this, we’ll wake up one morning covered with emotional cobwebs and taking each other for granted.
I’m not particularly troubled by Holly’s need for a break. I don’t believe that happy couples need to spend all their time together. What troubles me about Holly is that she just up and decides to go, without reference to Guido’s feelings about it.
But perhaps there’s something more going on with Holly. Perhaps she’s refusing to accept happiness as something that can exist and so she refuses to accept the happiness that Guido offers to her. In that, she’s not unlike Misty. Is there a way she could make Guido part of her need to escape, to make him a partner in helping her clear the cobwebs? That would be my hope. Guido does find peace with Holly’s impulsivity by accepting it as part of who she is, but can it also become part of who they are?
I think, in the world of this book, happiness involves a lot of acceptance. Acceptance of love from others. Accepting the way others are and the way they love. And accepting that happiness can exist, even if it doesn’t come to us in the way we expect.
I am happy to have accepted this book recommendation from Jenny. She’s a great lover of Laurie Colwin’s writing, but this is the first of her books that I’ve read. The writing and the characters in this book were so lovely that I know I’ll read more.