Shine on, Bright and Dangerous Object, 1975
Happy All the Time, 1978
Family Happiness, 1982
Goodbye Without Leaving, 1990
A Big Storm Knocked It Over, 1993
Passion and Affect, 1974 (pb. in England as Dangerous French Mistress, and Other Stories, 1975)
The Lone Pilgrim, 1981
Another Marvelous Thing, 1986
Home Cooking, 1988
More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen, 1993
Laurie Colwin was that rare modern author who could write cheerful tales of love and family life without becoming mired in sentimentality. Elegant, witty, and polished, her fiction has been compared to the novels of Jane Austen and Colette, though Colwin herself preferred comparisons with Evelyn Waugh. She is best known for her novels and short stories but was also a translator (for the author Isaac Bashevis Singer) and a food writer.
Colwin was born in New York City, where much of her fiction is set. She was raised in Chicago and suburban Philadelphia but returned to Manhattan as an adult. Although she attended classes at Bard College and Columbia University, she never graduated from college. Instead, she worked for literary agents and publishers, including Dutton, Viking, Pantheon, and Putnam. Colwin was not particularly successful or happy in the publishing world–she quit two jobs, was fired from another, and was laid off from a fourth–so she decided to try writing fiction herself. As a writer, she had much better luck. Her first story was published by the prestigious magazine The New Yorker when she was only twenty-five.
She continued publishing stories in The New Yorker as well as in women’s magazines such as Cosmopolitan, McCall’s, Mademoiselle, and Redbook. Her first book, which appeared in 1974, was a collection of short stories titled Passion and Affect. In these early stories, Colwin’s fascination with romantic love is already evident, but the characters are shallowly observed and lack the depth that characterizes her late writing. She published two novels, Shine on, Bright and Dangerous Object and Happy All the Time, during the 1970’s, but it was not until Family Happiness, her third novel, that she reached full strength as a writer. Although the heroine of Family Happiness, Polly Solo-Miller Demarest, leads an improbably perfect life, she suffers and experiences psychological growth. In the process, she becomes a fully human character. The novel marked a major step forward for Colwin, who in the early part of her career was often criticized for creating unreal fantasy characters similar to those found in mass-market women’s magazines.
Of her short-story collections, The Lone Pilgrim is the most highly regarded. In addition to critical praise, Colwin won an O. Henry Award for the title story. Interestingly, the collection includes a short-story version of her novel Family Happiness. The story “Family Happiness” includes the novel’s major characters, and many of the story’s best lines appear in the novel, which was published one year later. Colwin’s final volume of short stories, Another Marvelous Thing, follows two characters through an adulterous love affair that ends in estrangement. The unpleasant outcome is unusual for Colwin. More typically, she depicts extramarital relationships that bring great happiness or that ferry her heroines into true adult independence from their original families.
Her fourth novel, Goodbye Without Leaving, also marked a departure from her previous plot types. Geraldine Coleshares, the novel’s heroine, is a young Jewish woman whose only real satisfaction in life came from a youthful stint as a white dancer/singer in an otherwise all-black rock and roll band. Gone is Colwin’s signature character, a heroine whose orderly life is knocked akimbo by unexpected love. Geraldine drifts from one event to another, and at the novel’s end her identity problems have not yet been solved. This lack of resolution seems an indicator that Colwin was attempting to stretch her fiction in new directions.
Her final novel, A Big Storm Knocked It Over, was published posthumously. In it, Colwin returned to her usual concerns. The story is set in the publishing industry and once again revolves around a well-mannered heroine who finds meaning in home and family. Colwin’s style is here at its most polished and assured. Although the novel does not continue the path struck by Another Marvelous Thing and Goodbye Without Leaving, it is still satisfyingly well developed.
In addition to her fiction, Colwin was throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s a food columnist for Gourmet magazine. Much of her work there is collected in Home Cooking and More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen. These two cookbook-memoirs are particularly appealing because of their confessional quality, which makes her seem the embodiment of an ideal best friend: straightforward, humorous, and helpful. These volumes also provide a window into her personal life with husband Juris Jurjevics and daughter Rosa.
At age forty-eight, Laurie Colwin died suddenly from a heart attack. She was a remarkably beloved author, and hundreds of her readers attended her public memorial service, held in New York City. Appreciations of her and her writing appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and a number of lesser-known publications. A common theme runs through them: Colwin’s greatest gift as a writer was her ability to create serious, well-crafted fiction that brought joy to her readers through its celebration of the pleasures of everyday life.