The “Sneaky Subversiveness” of Laurie Colwin

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Laurie Colwin may be the only fiction writer in history who is known more for her recipes than her novels. Colwin, who died in 1992 at age 48 of an aortic aneurysm, was a contributor to Gourmet magazine and had a cultlike following for her food writing. Pre-Instagram, when broccoli rabe was still an exotic vegetable and you could exult about discovering scallion pancakes in Chinatown (“I had not known that such things existed”), Colwin had only her words to describe memorable meals with family and friends. “I am not a fancy cook or an ambitious one,” she admitted in “Home Cooking,” and she often celebrated the plain thing done perfectly, like her legendary roasted chicken. The same kind of unfussy delight could describe her fictional voice, in which she presents marriages that shimmer with an ineffable rightness, and extols family as “a haven in a heartless world.”

Colwin’s main subject is joy, as you might guess from the titles of two of her best novels: “Happy All the Time” and “Family Happiness.” This year her publishers are releasing all 10 of her books in matching editions, the two books about food as well as five novels and three story collections. It’s instructive to consider how the Colwinian sensibility — call her “a strong domestic sensualist,” as she dubs one of her heroines — holds up, given that her characters typically wind up in traditional nuclear families (by current standards) and take their privilege for granted. How are we to feel about men who have special socks mailed to them in New York from Paris, or about wives so devoted that they assemble trays of sumptuous goodies for their workaholic husbands’ late-afternoon snacks?

Although her unions may feel a bit candy-colored at first, it turns out that Colwin herself is intent on probing such domestic comfort. “Sentimentality is a second-string emotion,” one heroine sniffs. Beneath the effervescent romcomedies of manners, Colwin sneaks in a hint of ironic European art-house movie, with more moral ambiguity, less happiness all the time, than the plots might lead you to expect.

In a Colwin courtship, the man is most often a lawyer who comes from an old, prosperous family. The women are more bohemian and have more creative jobs — they’re book designers or even, in the case of Geraldine Coleshares in “Goodbye Without Leaving,” an ex-graduate student who once traveled as a backup singer in a rock ’n’ roll group. Their marriages bring security and equilibrium even though the women still sometimes long for their freewheeling single days.

Helping the heroines move toward marital bliss and doting motherhood are their best friends. Colwin writes passionately about the affection and trust that bind female confidantes. The girlfriends aren’t merely extras, there to listen patiently to the heroines’ woes. They share star billing and stumble through their own dating dramas.

The friend is often neurotic, cranky and incapable of social niceties. “Rich people make me sick,” Misty Berkowitz declares in “Happy All the Time.” She suffers from a sense of being a permanent outsider and wears an expression that her WASPy future husband calls “the only Jew at the dinner table look.” But her idiosyncrasies are charming rather than alarming, and she falls in love despite herself, while still delivering some of the novel’s most deliciously nasty takedowns of her fellow urbanites’ foibles and pretensions. These straight-shooting chums arrive in a scene with fireworks of sassy dialogue worthy of Nora Ephron or Fran Lebowitz.

Colwin herself is no slouch in the cultural mockery department; she has great fun with new fads and peppers her fiction with dead-on physical descriptions (“He was tall and cool and had the lean sort of mouth more experienced women know marks a deep sensualist who doesn’t kiss very much”).

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Lisa Zeidner is the author, most recently, of the novel “Love Bomb” and the craft book “Who Says? Mastering Point of View in Fiction.” She teaches in the M.F.A. program at Rutgers University-Camden.

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