Laurie Colwin’s Family Happiness is the second book in my planned summer of re-reading.

First read in November 1985 (which is incredibly scary) this is my fourth time of reading it and the second of the two copies I have. It’s another firm favourite and has been a great pleasure to revisit. Why so good? Well….

Polly Demarest is a happily married mother of two from what in anyone’s book would be a very privileged and wealthy Jewish family in New York. Her father is a lawyer, as is one of her brothers and her husband. She is the only daughter and there are expectations on her to be sensible, practical, reliable and basically the rock of her family. But Polly has something missing from her life that she didn’t realise until she met, fell in love and embarked on a relationship with an artist, Lincoln Bennett. If the novel is about anything then it’s Polly’s self-growth.

And writing that down I wonder why I ever picked this up as superficially it’s not something that would attract me (although I suppose I do have bit of a thing for family sagas). But pick it up I did and I fell in love with it, because:

  • it’s just so beautifully written – there is a real lightness of touch which makes it a joy to read
  • I adore Polly, I think she’s a wonderfully complex character, trying to be a good person and slowly realising that her family just takes advantage of her without really seeing her as an individual
  • her relationships with her husband, Henry, and with Lincoln are believable and complicated; she clearly loves them both but in different ways
  • her family are gloriously eccentric but not monsters – I enjoyed Paul and Beate particularly (but would definitely not want to be related to them)
  • it shows that nice people can get in a pickle too

I don’t normally quote from the books I read, especially novels, but there are a couple of passages that I love:

Family life is deflective: it gives everybody something to do. It absorbs sadness and sops up loneliness. It provides work, company, and entertainment. It makes tasks for idle hands and allows an anxious spirit to hide in its capacious bosom.

and

It was surely not right to feel this happy, but it was also undeniable. the air outside was smoky with spring rain. The street was gray. The warehouses across the street were wet. Polly put down her cup. The pure feelings one had in adult life were complicated and mitigated, and they were dearly paid for, but worth everything they cost.

This was the first Laurie Colwin novel that I read, and I quickly sought out the others as well as her short story collections and the two books she wrote on cooking. Sadly she died in 1992 so there are no new works to discover, but what she did produce in her career is in my mind absolutely wonderful, and worth seeking out.

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