Laurie Colwin, whose contemporary novels of manners remain
popular 15 years after her death
The phrase “summer reading” evokes languid afternoons at the
country cottage of the rich branch of your family, even if
you are more likely to finish this season’s hot summer beach
book while sitting on the carpet at JFK waiting to hear if
your flight will depart before Labor Day.
So let me introduce you to the late Laurie Colwin, who may
be the perfect summer author. Colwin is highly readable: Complex
enough to hold your attention, but not so involved that you
need an index to the characters. She will get you through
a delay at the airport as easily as an afternoon in a hammock,
and her characters will linger long after you finish one of
her compact novels.
you have never heard of Laurie Colwin, you are in good company,
as she’s hardly a household name. Yet her publisher, HarperCollins,
still has in print every book that Colwin wrote, 15 years
after her death. That’s a claim many living best-selling authors
may not be able to make a decade or two from now.
Colwin was a native New Yorker who attended Bard College in
Annandale-on-Hudson, and then Columbia University in the 1960s
before she launched her writing career as a food columnist
for Gourmet magazine.
She won a Guggenheim Fellowship on the strength of her fiction,
and wrote five novels and several collections of essays and
short stories before dying in 1992 at 48 of an undetected
heart condition. She had just finished her last novel, A
Big Storm Knocked It Over, which Harper Collins published
posthumously and which reads as a poignant tribute to her
own happy late-in-life marriage.
Colwin’s books have been de scribed as a contemporary take
on the novel of manners, in which mood and setting, comic
interactions and lush descriptions of meals and parties keep
the story moving, in lieu of action-packed drama and wind-up
endings. Her themes focus on the struggle to find love against
the backdrop of frustrating family relationships. Many of
her settings will be familiar to New Yorkers: Manhattan, the
Berkshires, coastal summer homes.
Her male characters are believably male, and her female characters
never seem repetitious. It’s difficult to remember that the
author who created Geraldine Colshares, the only white singer
in a Motown girl group in Goodbye Without Leaving,
is the same writer who also conceived Polly Solo-Miller of
Family Happiness, the proper young matron from a socially
prominent Manhattan clan who is tearing herself apart over
her wild secret affair with an artist.
Colwin was also a master of internal dialogue. In this passage
from Family Happiness, the philandering Polly is alone
in her beautifully appointed Upper East Side apartment, suffering
through a separation from her lover while her workaholic attorney
husband is on a business trip. Here, Polly has just finished
reading an unbearably clueless, happily prattling letter from
go to hell,” said Polly to the letter. She thought about the
sort of letter she might write in reply: Dear Eva: The last
six months have been the darkest of my life. Maybe someday
you will feel this way. You will wake up some morning and
stop chirping. This may not be possible for you, but it was
for me. Everything is very difficult, it turns out. Your darling
brother has not changed a whit. I just got defeated by the
way he is—working too hard, away a lot, and absent often when
present. So I on the other hand am having an adulterous affair.
With writing like this, Colwin will appeal to men as well
as women; to fans of Edith Wharton and Jane Austen as well
as devotees of Danielle Steele.
was first directed to Colwin by my college writing teacher,
Stuart Friebert, because, he said, she was so good at writing
about happiness,” says upstate writer and novelist Rhian Ellis
of Ithaca, a 1990 Oberlin College graduate. “And it’s hard
to write well about happiness, because happy people can seem
shallow—but Colwin’s characters were complex and interesting
An easy way to acquaint your-self with Colwin is through her
food writing. Her first collection of food essays, Home
Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, details her early years
in New York City, from her sandwich-line duty during the Columbia
University student strikes of the 1960s, to her volunteer
work as the cook for a woman’s shelter.
Okun, the food editor and restaurant reviewer for the Buffalo
News, was an early fan of Colwin’s unpretentious approach
to cooking. In the ’80s, an era of celebrity chefs, nouvelle
cuisine and one-upmanship at dinner parties, Colwin poked
fun at her history of flopped desserts and curdled fondue;
advised her readers that a bottle of wine worked just fine
as a rolling pin; and confessed that most of her kitchen equipment
had come from tag sales.
it was comfort food,” Okun recalls of Colwin’s recipes. “It
was food that everyone loves to eat.”
Ruth Reichl, editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine and
the former restaurant critic for The New York Times,
first got to know Colwin for her fiction. Reichl joined Gourmet
eight years after Colwin died, and the two had never met,
but Reichl has always had a special feeling for Colwin’s writing
through their shared connection.
Soon after Reichl started at Gourmet, she discovered
a stash of hundreds of condolence letters that readers had
sent when Colwin died in 1992. The magazine had kept them,
but Reichl decided to send them to Colwin’s husband so that
the couple’s daughter could read them.
was a sign of how much people loved her,” Reichl says. Since
then, Reichl has gotten many inquiries from writers hoping
to duplicate Colwin’s food column, but Reichl has never found
anyone who could match Colwin’s combination of sensuality
is no ‘next Laurie Colwin,’” Reichl says. “There was only
one Laurie Colwin. She was beloved, and I would give anything
to find somebody who could do what she did.”