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Season to Taste

Remembering Laurie Colwin, whose contemporary novels of manners remain popular 15 years after her death

By Darryl McGrath

 

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.

If 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 her sister-in-law:

“Oh, 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.

“I 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 and alive.”

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.

Janice 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.

“Basically, 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.

“It 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 and sensibility.

“There 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.”


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