The domestic world – the inner circle of the family in its messy glory – regularly gets a hammering at the hands of most seasoned reviewers as it’s not usually considered a topic for serious literature. Instead it’s become the home of the Aga-saga, as they were once called over here, the province of the middle-class housewife and her trivial concerns about happiness, duty, good behaviour and surface appearance. For some reason, lost in the mists of old prejudice which no one looks at too closely because we’re not supposed to have those old prejudices any more, the subject area is usually consigned to supermarket-novel oblivion. Only Jane Austen managed to marry domesticity with literature in a way that satisfied everyone. So it’s not surprising that when contemporary authors approach the minefield of the domestic with wit, flair and some quality writing, the analogy with Austen is inevitably broached. I’d like to think, however, that there are good writers who tackle family stories with charm and a finely-honed linguistic scalpel who are not like Austen but just like themselves. And Laurie Colwin, despite the Austen analogies, is one of them.
Colwin’s novel, Family Happiness, is a simple story. It concerns Polly Solo-Miller, a good girl from a good family, living a good life according to the rules instilled in her during childhood, who suddenly finds herself having an affair with a reclusive painter named Lincoln. For Polly, whose sense of identity is completely bound up with obedience and virtue, this is nothing short of a cataclysmic disaster, but the fact that Lincoln is essential to her existence shows her something is seriously wrong in her life philosophy. The novel charts the implosion of her cherished beliefs and the intriguing compromises she will make to find her own individual way of living. Much as the family happiness of the title refers to the threat hovering over her own much-loved husband and two children, the family with the real clout here is Polly’s clan, the tribal Solo-Millers with their unbreachable code of conduct. The portraits Colwin paints of Polly’s relations, her magisterial father, dominating her with ‘Daddy’s Horizontal Flicker of Disapproval’, and her delicious monster of a mother, manipulating her tenderly with love and a metaphorical whip of criticism, are exquisitely done. So, too, are the subplots that concern Polly’s two brothers, the younger one, Henry, slobbish, impatient and juvenile, the older, Paul, tyrannical, cold and charmless. Polly, sandwiched in between these unlovely boys, has been handed the role in the family script of the reliable one, the legible one, the one who will continue the family traditions in the way that best pleases her parents. Polly finds, however, that she has paid very dearly for approval, as perfection and excellence as a matter of course are not easy states to reproduce without a gradual build-up of resentment.
Colwin writes so wonderfully well about the inequality of family relations and the way that some siblings get to wear a far more lightweight mantle of expectations than others. The oldest brother, Paul, is a good case in point and will turn out to be a real thorn in Polly’s side as the narrative progresses. ‘No one, except for Henry, Sr., who had his son’s admiration, knew quite what to do with him. He treated his mother with the tender but essentially distant courtesy you might give to a mildly insane but well-meaning relative. Polly he accepted as if she were a piece of pleasing wallpaper, and Henry, Jr., he ignored as if he were a mess on the rug. His place in the family was absolutely firm and no one expected anything of him. They were thrilled to see him when he showed up.’ Colwin is equally sharp-eyed on the brutality of family love, it’s blackmailer’s demands: ‘It always surprised Polly that other women, who were not so good at making things sweet, whose households were not so sparkling and comfortable, whose children were not so well turned out, behaved as if they, too, deserved love. […] Polly believed that one wrong move and people ceased to love you. Other people – her parents, her brothers, Gwen Stern, Paula Peckham – had some magic charm that allowed them to live any way they wanted. These effortless beings existed on some higher plane. Next to them, Polly was a drudge, the one who could be counted on to do the donkey work without complaint.’ Whilst this sounds like a construction in Polly’s imagination, it is nevertheless true in its way. When Polly forgets about her childrens’ spring break, her mother’s voice becomes ‘formal and demanding, as if to get a confession from a crook’, and when she is forced to leave a restaurant early because she feels too ill to remain there, her mother complains that ‘this is most upsetting’ and her exit is not accompanied by good wishes but her fretful calls of ‘Darling, really.’ Mild sayings perhaps, but ominous omens to one as steeped in the family code as Polly.
And so the novel charts Polly’s slow, painful extrication from the suffocating coils of family happiness, or at least from the kind of picture-book happiness that she, and she alone, is expected to produce with unfailing perfection. And into the forbidden space that is opened up by her affair with Lincoln will be poured all the sorrow and impossibility of her present, pent-up existence. It would be interesting, I think, to compare the novels of adultery across different countries, as infidelity is represented with such intriguing variations. In French novels, adultery is a necessary escape (think Madame Bovary), in German novels it is a way of subverting rules that is inevitably doomed to failure (think Effi Briest), in Russian novels it is claustrophobia and tragedy (think Anna Karenina), and in American novels, if Colwin is anything to go by, its epicenter is to be found in overwhelming guilt. The puritanical spirit is so strong, still, that adultery can only be represented if the female participant is damaging herself with self-reproach. Polly’s endless self-recriminations were the only place, for me, where the narrative stagnated occasionally, but the purity and beauty of the writing was always enough of a pleasure to pull me through. What the excessive self-reproach also suggested to me was that there is something deeply subversive about the central concept of this novel. To posit perfect family happiness on traditional lines, with loving bonds between all family members and a sense of deeply ingrained ideology being handed down through the generations, and then to blow it sky high as a structure ruinously built out of the blood and bones of female self-denial, remains a dangerous thing to do. Perhaps that’s why novels that take such a risk are best fobbed off with labels like middlebrow and ‘women’s fiction’. The art of defamiliarisation, one of the main provinces of literature whereby stories show us the old and familiar but in new and disconcerting ways, could surely not, in their pages, be manipulated with such unnerving skill.