Thursday, September 18, 2008

I started reading Laurie Colwin this summer because of an article I read on Jezebel about marketing fiction written by women. The article talked about how, in the current literary climate, a novel written by someone with breasts will likely be encased in a pink dustjacket and placed on a table of chick-lit even if its subject matter does not fundamentally concern underwear shopping, boyfriend analyzing, social climbing, strategic bed-hopping and all the other topics that made nasty Candace Bushnell a brazillionaire. While I think this would give most well-read girls pause, upon reflection, I'm not vehemently opposed to idea. I am happy if this strategy enables talented women to make a living at writing, and I like to imagine people looking for the next adventure of a shopaholic being tricked into reading something that potentially has intellectual merit. Laurie Colwin was offered up as an example of an authoress who wrote "serious" books that happened to be about women and also happened to periodically employ humor.

That was enough of an endorsement to send me to the library to borrow Happy All the Time and Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object. Colwin was quite prolific, and with almost ten novels to her credit, it was difficult to know where to start, but those two seemed to be the most frequently acclaimed. I blew through both stories in about 48 hours apiece. Both hovered around the 200 page range and were not particularly taxing to traverse. I had a hard time with Happy All the Time, because I didn't like any of the female characters. They were all such difficult women. One of them was a stay-at-home wife who would frequently disappear for months long chunks of time to "be alone in the quiet" or whatever with nary a substantial explanation to her beleaguered husband. The other main female character was always either being nasty, suspicious and snide to her husband or crying about how she was worried he didn't love her. Both of these women turned their noses up at a peripheral lady character who had the nerve to passionate about organic food. I suppose the point of this was to show that women do not have to fit into a traditional mold of femininity and domesticity, waiting at home with hot meatloaf on the stove. Meanwhile, the husbands were the sweetest, most jovial dopes I'd ever encountered. How did they find their way to these women? The entire time I was reading, I couldn't understand whether Colwin was trying to teach me a lesson embodying ideals I believed in in two very unlikable women, or whether she really thought she was creating Bohemian, modern paradigms for us all to which we should all aspire.

The second book, Shine On Bright and Dangerous Object, was about a slightly more likable woman my age who has just lost her husband in a sailing accident. Within the first ten pages of this novel, it was clear that she and her dead husband's brother are in love, that they are inherently more compatible than she was with her dead husband, and that the two of them are going to end up together. No, seriously, we had to wait through 175 pages of them pretending to not be in love while she grieved and built her new life on her own terms and blah blah blah until she finally got drunk and made out with her dead husband's brother. And then, in the last couple chapters, after she finally permits herself to be happy with the dead husband's brother, she goes away to a musical summer camp for grownups where she starts an affair with a married pediatrician from Tennessee. I had been on board with the whole stupid storyline until she boned the doctor from Nashville. That just made me mad. The character justified it by saying that her relationship with the doctor was something completely independent and special from her dead-husbands-brother-boyfriend at home, assumedly to prove the point that her love for her dead husband is something unique and unconnected to her love for his alive brother. I knew from the beginning she was going to get together with the brother, and I was rooting for it, but I guess I'm too rigid and monogamous to allow the logic to follow so far that one relationship pairing has literally no bearing on another one.

Not surprisingly, the book I liked even better than either of these was Colwin's non-fiction-memoir-cookbook, Home Cooking. Several hundred pages of anecdotes, advice and opinions about the kitchen, this book was all my favorite things. This afternoon I picked up the sequel, More Home Cooking, from the library and three chapters in, it is quickly winning me over. The introduction was all about how all her favorite books have vivid descriptions of menus and food, and as illustration of this point, she mentioned what a infuriatingly underrated author Jane Austen is. "Everybody thinks she's just darling, but she is not just darling, she's really tough." And that sentence helps me to understand Colwin's intentions with her women a little bit better; just as Austen wrote women that expanded conceptions of the abilities and interior lives of Regency women, Colwin wants to create women who challenge our ideas of the everyday pedestrian heroine.

That doesn't mean I have to like them, though, because, man, they sound annoying.

1 comment:

lauren weisenberger said...

i'm a real ho.