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Laurie Colwin’s Family Happiness is the second book in my planned summer of re-reading.

First read in November 1985 (which is incredibly scary) this is my fourth time of reading it and the second of the two copies I have. It’s another firm favourite and has been a great pleasure to revisit. Why so good? Well….

Polly Demarest is a happily married mother of two from what in anyone’s book would be a very privileged and wealthy Jewish family in New York. Her father is a lawyer, as is one of her brothers and her husband. She is the only daughter and there are expectations on her to be sensible, practical, reliable and basically the rock of her family. But Polly has something missing from her life that she didn’t realise until she met, fell in love and embarked on a relationship with an artist, Lincoln Bennett. If the novel is about anything then it’s Polly’s self-growth.

And writing that down I wonder why I ever picked this up as superficially it’s not something that would attract me (although I suppose I do have bit of a thing for family sagas). But pick it up I did and I fell in love with it, because:

  • it’s just so beautifully written – there is a real lightness of touch which makes it a joy to read
  • I adore Polly, I think she’s a wonderfully complex character, trying to be a good person and slowly realising that her family just takes advantage of her without really seeing her as an individual
  • her relationships with her husband, Henry, and with Lincoln are believable and complicated; she clearly loves them both but in different ways
  • her family are gloriously eccentric but not monsters – I enjoyed Paul and Beate particularly (but would definitely not want to be related to them)
  • it shows that nice people can get in a pickle too

I don’t normally quote from the books I read, especially novels, but there are a couple of passages that I love:

Family life is deflective: it gives everybody something to do. It absorbs sadness and sops up loneliness. It provides work, company, and entertainment. It makes tasks for idle hands and allows an anxious spirit to hide in its capacious bosom.


It was surely not right to feel this happy, but it was also undeniable. the air outside was smoky with spring rain. The street was gray. The warehouses across the street were wet. Polly put down her cup. The pure feelings one had in adult life were complicated and mitigated, and they were dearly paid for, but worth everything they cost.

This was the first Laurie Colwin novel that I read, and I quickly sought out the others as well as her short story collections and the two books she wrote on cooking. Sadly she died in 1992 so there are no new works to discover, but what she did produce in her career is in my mind absolutely wonderful, and worth seeking out.

The second volume of Michael Palin’s diaries to be published (see what I thought about volume 1 here) Halfway to Hollywood covers the bulk of the 1980s, when Monty Python made their last film together as a group, when Palin himself made several films of note (including one of my favourites, Brazil) and ends with him embarking on the series which would see him become a household name in a very different way from before, when he started the trip that would become Around the World in Eighty Days.

I’m a sucker for reading other people’s diaries and letters not just for the insight it gives into their careers (and there’s a lot here for anyone interested in Python history and in the UK and US film industries at the time) but also to wonder what’s been left out. Because clearly there has to inevitably have been some heavy editing, and though he is quite candid about his feelings over his sister’s suicide in some of the entries you wonder what wasn’t said, or was recorded but not included. And no matter how hard any diarist tries to be honest, anyone who keeps a journal knows that it’s all about how you feel at the time you write a particular entry, that sometimes you don’t record some of the difficult stuff at all (unless you are very disciplined) and that you can’t help but try to present yourself at your best, because someone is going to read it after you’re gone, even if it’s only your very nearest and dearest.

But perhaps that’s just me.

Anyway, Michael Palin has always been one of my absolute favourites so I enjoyed reading his thoughts very much, and look forward to a third volume at some point (fingers  crossed).

Bride of the Book God

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Scottish, in my fifties, love books but not always able to find the time to read them as much as I would like. I’m based in London and happily married to the Book God.

I also blog at Bride of the Screen God (all about movies and TV) and The Dowager Bride, if you are interested in ramblings about stuff of little consequence

If you would like to get in touch you can contact me at brideofthebookgod (at) btinternet (dot) com.

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August 2010