Family Happiness, by Laurie Colwin
I’ve been meaning to read something by the late Laurie Colwin for ages, and I finally got around to it this week. I’m so glad I did! So here is another one of my overly personal and tl;dr reviews :) This is a deliciously complex book underneath the deceptively simple writing style. The story really resonated with me, not so much the characters and their life situations, but the underlying emotional conflicts. The main character is a middle-aged woman who, like many of us, is juggling the roles of adult child, sibling, spouse and parent. On the surface her life is enviably pleasant and comfortable, with a closeknit extended family, a stable marriage, and two interesting and bright children. Some people, including me when I was younger, might read this book and think that nothing really happens. Which is the whole point. It’s easy to sympathize with someone’s story when their life is going in a difficult direction with obvious and dramatic challenges. But a life that appears comfortable and trouble-free is often hiding just as much inner turmoil and insecurity. It’s just that not many people want to hear about it. I think we’d often rather stereotype about the greener grass in our neighbor’s yard. It makes us feel motivated to admire others who seem to have it all together, and it can be fun to bond with other mere mortals in those ‘must be nice’ conversations.
As we get older and have more experience and empathy, we realize that nobody’s life is perfect, however much it may seem so on the surface. In fact, those people who really seem to have it all together may be the ones who are hiding the most. Family Happiness is the story of a woman who is living the ideal life that she was trained to hope for and dream of. She suddenly realizes that not only is she incredibly lonely and unhappy, but that she has brought this on herself by allowing other people’s expectations to become a prison.
Not surprisingly, the catalyst for this realization is meeting someone who finally sees her as herself. Everyone in her life has always seen her as the good child, the easy one, the contented, fulfilled daughter/wife/mother. Like the ideal servant, achieving perfection in her roles means that she becomes invisible. Suddenly, someone sees beyond those masks to the lonely prisoner who is desperate for affection. What happens next is completely predictable in some ways, astonishing in others. The prison break shakes up everybody’s world, but they all survive.
This book dropped into my life like a rock into a calm pond, and it keeps resonating with me in increasing ripples the longer I think about it. I’ve had a major realization: I suspect that everybody needs at least one person in their life who unconditionally supports them in each of their roles. It’s easier to find supporters for some roles than for others. I’ve often had one or two at a time, but there’s always at least one role that feels desperately lonely and isolated. Once, I met someone who saw me as a whole person and accepted all my different facets with unconditional love and friendship. That did not always mean unconditional approval .. quite the contrary. He had an uncomfortable talent for saying exactly what I most needed, and least wanted, to hear. I didn’t appreciate that enough while I had it. I miss it. I gave up that friendship in an either/or ultimatum. Maybe I should have fought harder for a compromise. I think I would have, if I had realized how rare it is to find someone who sees all of me and loves me not in spite of my bad qualities, but because of them. I don’t know if that will ever happen again. But hindsight, like the god’s eye view in a novel, is always clearer than real life.
Like many great writers, Colwin allows us to see the characters from multiple perspectives, empathizing even while we are impatient with their bad decisions and human failings. What happens is unsatisfying and frustrating and completely believable. Even though the story is not dramatic and, in fact, not much really happens, this is a hero’s journey of emotional maturity, with great subtlety and a delicate touch. I enjoy this kind of writing so much more than those books where everything is straightforward and all the loose ends are tied up tight in a happy ending with no room for doubt. It’s like real life. It’s like my life. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that doubt is a master key, powerful and dangerous. Used wisely, it opens the door to learning all kinds of interesting things.