Family Happiness: A Beautiful Dud of a Book

Anyone who knows me reasonably well knows I’m a huge Laurie Colwin fan and I’ve read all of her books many many times and I’ve got them all internalized to a probably unhealthy degree.

There’s a novel of hers, though, that I’ve read distinctly fewer times than anything else she ever wrote. It’s called Family Happiness, and it’s a book that I know is loved by many of her fans.

It is not loved by me.

It’s not hated by me, either; it just leaves me sort of uninterested. Though the writing is as recognizably — and enjoyably — Colwin as anything else she wrote, the story and characters give me very little to work with. It’s about a devoted wife and mother who has an affair. That’s all. It’s not really very complicated (not that Colwin books really are; they’re all basically novels of the heart and novels of manners). There’s nothing wrong with it, but our heroine, Polly, isn’t interesting enough for me, and the characters who are spiky enough to be interesting aren’t given lead roles. Other Colwin novels, the spikier types get much more dialogue, and I think the books are much more fun as a result.

But that’s neither here nor there. What I want to talk about is, Giving the book a chance. The first time I read Family Happiness I think I was about twenty-two or twenty-three years old. I was decidedly pro-Colwin, and it was among the last of her works of fiction I read. It did very little for me, but I remember thinking, “This is one of those books where I’ll probably like it a lot better if I read it when I’m a little older.” Like I knew that I wasn’t really old enough to appreciate it on the correct levels.

So while I would re-read Goodbye Without Leaving and Happy All the Time annually, and keep the cookbooks on hand in the kitchen, my copy of Family Happiness tended to just sit around collecting dust. Every few years I would notice it and think, “Yeah, I should re-read that.”
Well, it’s now been decades since I first read that book. I’ve read it I think two times in the intervening years, and I just read it again last week, and I’m here to tell you: I will never love that book the way I love the other Colwin books. Mostly, I think, because I think Polly’s a twit. I mean, I kind of sympathize with her, but not that much. All the flaws people call out in Colwin books — they’re completely blind to serious entitlement issues, they’re completely unrealistic to the vast majority of Americans, almost no one actually lives on Planet Colwin — are there but to the absolute nth degree in Family Happiness. Other books of hers will give at least some kind of lip service to class issues, race issues, and so on — sometimes more than lip service, in fact — but Family Happiness is the kind of worst-case-scenario of Colwin books. Here’s a woman who’s got, seriously, no big problems, except her rich lawyer husband works a lot, and she’s an emotional wreck because of it.

Well, look, babe. Such is life. I’m not sure how to empathize with you, given what I know about your life. You think that people who do grocery shopping in supermarkets on Sundays are morally bankrupt wretches? Really? Oh, Polly: What would you do in today’s America? How would you react to Blue Apron and Plated and Instacart?

I’m going to be blunt and just say what I think: I think Family Happiness is a beautifully-written dud of a novel. However, its flaws, for me, serve a crucial purpose, which is that they make the other books, which I love, seem so much better.

It’s now 2018 and been thirty years since Home Cooking was first published. It’s time for a major assessment of Colwin’s work. I plan to work on this, and I’m glad I’ve got Family Happiness out of the way, because now I can think about the stuff I actually like. In addition to the thorny problem of what to make for dinner tonight.

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