Laurie Colwin’s ‘Happy All the Time’

by Jess

I haven’t enjoyed a book so much in a long time. Laurie Colwin’s quick little novel “Happy All the Time” is a joy and a delight. I can’t remember the last time I read a book with a happy marriage as the subject, and it’s rare to find such a gem about true friendship. It’s just–though I rather detest the word–heartwarming.

This Washington Post review has a number of quotes from the novel as well as some biographical information about Colwin, including her unexpected and tragic death from heart failure at the age of 48. As the author of the review touches on, I thought she had marvelous characterizations, like this one:

Holly could cook, do needlework, play tennis, and fish.  She had studied the Italic hand, the Carolingian minuscule and the restoration of paintings and china.  She could balance her checkbook to forty-five cents, make a perfect pie crust, identify most wild flowers in the northeastern United States, and bandage simple wounds.  She could stand on her head, do a swan dive, repair lamps and knew the collections of most major museums.

And this one:

“Sybel was a modern dancer who also studied mime. She was a vegetarian and took a brand of vitamin pills that could be obtained only in New Jersey. … Once a week she saw a psychiatrist who thought that all mental distress had its origin in posture. … Stanley’s apartment was cluttered with Sybel’s possessions–her tatty leg warmers, her numerous bottles of vitamin pills, her jars of kelp, soybean paste, and brown rice. The three-pound leg weights she walked around in to strengthen her calves were hanging over the bedroom doorknob … The time they spent together was taken up in large part by looking for a restaurant in which Sybel might eat. Walking into an ordinary restaurant was as good as drinking a bottle of poison to Sybel, and her schedule prevented her from shopping for the chewy vegetables she craved.”

The story centers around two cousins, Vincent and Guido, and their travails and successes in love. Guido very quickly falls in love with the emotionally unavailable but alluring Holly (“She withdrew as if withdrawal was as natural as drinking coffee, and she did not make emotional statements.”) and much of the rest of the book is left to Vincent’s pursuit of Misty, who apparently is a very thinly veiled autobiographical insert of Colwin herself.

I adore Misty. When Vincent first asks her out to lunch, surprising himself in his brashness, she wants to know why.

“Why can’t I simply take you out for lunch?”

“Behavior is no accident,” said Misty. “People have reasons for what they do. Besides, if you wanted some appealing girl, why didn’t you go down to the PR department? It’s loaded with appealing types.”

“I don’t want any of those appealing types,” he paused. “I wanted you.”

“Oh, yeah?” said Misty. “What are you going to do when you get me?”

“Well, take you out for lunch,” said Vincent.

“Really? Well, I don’t permit myself to be taken out for lunch.”

“Is that some sort of militant stand?”

“No,” said Misty. “I’m just not that sort of girl. I don’t go in for all that adorable socializing. I think it’s stupid and disgusting.”

“I see,” said Vincent. “You’re not very nice, are you?”

“No,” said Misty.

I like to think of myself as not that sort of girl, either. I find so many things that come up on my facebook newsfeed to be stupid and disgusting, but I tend to keep my opinions a little closer than Misty does.

I love the way we get to watch their lives play out in the novel. There is so much about the way the two couples communicate and stress each other out and simply enjoy each other’s company that strikes me as so incredibly real. I feel like I know these people intimately, because I am these people and my friends are these people.

When Guido and Holly have a baby, Vincent and Misty come to the hospital to view it–it being the baby because “babies were all ‘it’ to Misty until they wore clothes that more properly identified them.” Holly tells them a few months later,

“Having babies is wonderful. It’s really quite stupefying. I feel I should be given the Nobel Prize. I can’t wait until you two have one.”

“If we ever have a baby,” said Misty, “it will have my temperament and no one will want to come and see it. When it grows up, it will have Uncle Bernie’s criminal tendencies and will cause great scandal.”

“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” said Vincent. “Besides, you promised me that someday we would have a little Communist of our very own.”

Somehow, Colwin manages to strike that perfect balance between laugh-out-loud humor and deeply penetrating feeling. She reminds me of Lorrie Moore in that way. There is such a resonance and a humanity to her writing that I find very affecting. Margo Rabb’s review of Colwin’s writing very neatly summarizes my feelings about her: “There are times in life when you need a book that doesn’t rend your soul or make you want to crawl under the covers and weep. Yet you don’t want fluff, you’re loath to have your brain invaded by young ladies dithering over where to find their next man/martini/Manolo, and you’re not in the mood to see how long it takes Miss Marple to find the murderer. You want to find a book that’s meaningful, smart, funny, and—dare one even hope?—maybe even joyful. You need Laurie Colwin.”

All of Colwin’s books are still in print, which is unusual. I can’t wait to read more of them. I am particularly interested in her two volumes of food writing (I am a sucker for food writing), because, as Rabb says, ” I would love Home Cooking for no other reason than that it includes the essay ‘Repulsive Dinners: A Memoir.’ ”

I can’t think of anyone to whom I would not recommend Colwin’s Happy All the Time. Read it and be encouraged.

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