by Laurie Colwin
from the April 17, 2023 issue of The New Yorker
I first encountered Laurie Colwin a couple of years ago when I first read her novel Happy All the Time. I loved it. Colwin sadly died in 1992 when she was only 48. She first submitted a story to The New Yorker all the way back in 1969, and she published several stories in the magazine up to her death. I was surprised — though delighted — to find her in the magazine this week!
It turns out that when much of her work was republished in 2021 (the same way I first came upon it), Lauren LeBlanc wrote an article about her for The Los Angeles Times. In it, she talked to Colwin’s editor, Vicky Wilson, who spoke about the manuscript Colwin was working on when she died. Colwin’s daughter, R.F. Jurjevics, went searching the storage units and finally uncovered it. She’s the one who is interviewed for the magazine this week here.
I’m not sure what state the story is in, but I’m very excited to have it. Here is how it begins:
This is not an account of a love affair, and it is not the story of a religious conversion, although elements of both pertain. Of course, in life, which is full of surprises, it is hard to know what anything is.
I look forward to sitting down with the story! Please feel welcome to leave your thoughts below!
New to Colwin. There’s a wholesomeness here that reminds of Anne Tyler’s splashes through the puddles of domesticity. This piece evokes a different time in American letters, when Carver was the guild baron of the short form, and the crispness here seems inflected with some minimalism and simplicity, set in an America more modulated by everyday religiosity. This tale is seemingly simple, straightforward, even quaint, but there are some surprises beneath the placid shell. Neither under- nor overcooked, the author here is patient, uses dialogue sparingly and well, and sort of puts the lie to the “show don’t tell” workshop matrix.
I tend to prefer a little more weirdness and darkness of the type that underlies Dillard or Marilyn Robinson or even Ann Beattie. Colwin here seems less performative and less interested in crafting beautiful sentences than Laurie Moore and John Updike, and not as harrowing as the best of Alice Munro or as resonant as Andre Dubus’s takes on marital infidelity. The characters are well-wrought for sure, though, and the plot unfurls patiently. It was sort of just “nice” to time travel back to the era long before internet dating or the internet period. A time where every other story or movie seemed dominated by the intertwining motifs of Freud and Woody Allen, two more writers who came to mind while reading this tale. There are symbols and themes and the story is very, well, story-ish, in ways that you rarely see in quite the same way today.
Colwin comes across as peppy and smart in her prose, and there’s a light touch and some humor as well, so perhaps I’ll check out one of her novels. The protagonist here is very well drawn and reads like a real person, flawed and foibled, ecstatic and variegating back and forth between lacking self-awareness and having so much it makes her self-conscious, a likable if bourgeois woman who just wanted some tea and some D, as we might say these days. Her interiority was tea-like itself, a calming/warming/soothing thing to imbibe and then move on with your day.
The supporting characters are alive as well. It makes total sense why a woman with her protagonist’s qualities would have an affair with an older guy like Louis, who is actually a little more worldly and wisdom-filled and is just there to fill the void of the woman at home, daughter and husband no longer needing her as much as they once did. Fornication and apostasy are more glossed than plumbed, which fits with the story’s tone.
The “you can never really know anyone…or yourself” philosophizing is my least favorite aspect of this piece, but it’s not ruinous, just a little ambitious in its desire to be seen as being about something consequential, some sort of enduring human truth. And there are times when the language figures pile up a bit (the section with the depth charge and the mushrooms in the rain). Overall, though, a cookie and cuppa I relished.
Great review Sean H.