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>Family Happiness

October 26, 2010

>Ok, it’s true that I can be something of a moralist; witness the blog title. But when I set out to find something by Laurie Colwin, who I’ve heard so many good things about from so many different people I can’t keep track of them all, I thought I could enjoy one of her most-recommended novels, Family Happiness, without getting too stuck on how the main character, Polly, is unfaithful to her husband.

I was wrong, though. I found the whole experience of reading Family Happiness unpleasant because of how approvingly Colwin presents Polly’s adulterous affair with a single man.

Maybe part of what disturbs me about Polly is how much any female reader is likely to identify with her–she thinks she needs to be “less needy and less angry” when it’s clear that she needs to express more of both emotions.

Maybe what really got to me is how the characterization of her husband, a successful man who sometimes pays too much attention to his work and too little to his wife, reminded me of someone (I passed the novel over to Ron and asked him to read a page, but I don’t think he saw himself there as much as I did).

For whatever reasons, I hate the choices Polly makes and I end up hating her. Even extraneous things about her–like the way she likes to lounge around with her family on a bed for the evening–irritate me (the “horizontal evenings” they spend remind me of a line from one of my favorite scenes in Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, when Harriet looks in on an old lady who stays in bed all the time and thinks what a terrible life that would be, saying about bed “in and out, that’s my motto.” It’s always been mine, too).

Family Happiness is, of course, an ironic title. Polly doesn’t get along well with her parents or siblings, although an outsider would probably see them as close, since they see each other a lot. The moral of the novel seems to be that “it’s nice to know that other people who you think have perfect lives have trouble, too.”

I don’t find the element of schadenfreude very satisfying, though, and really don’t like any of Polly’s ideas about how to cope with troubles.

I do, however, like this xkcd comic, about constructive commenting (and don’t miss the mouse-over).

13 Comments leave one →
  1. October 26, 2010 1:37 pm

    >I have not read this one but have read other Colwins (which I enjoyed). I'm not a fan of adultry but I am a fan of Colwin in general.

  2. October 26, 2010 2:03 pm

    >Family Happiness wasn't my favorite — I really liked Goodbye Without Leaving. I've read all of Colwin's books and now that I think about it, several of them have to do with adulterers! Hmmm. . . makes me wonder if this is something she was dealing with personally.

  3. October 26, 2010 2:05 pm

    >I have severe problems with adultry in books. Maybe it is because of how often it is represented as a "normal solution" in modern books? I might be traditional (that feels so weird to say for a 23 year old, but I guess many will consider me in that light), but to me it is never a solution and certainly not normal.. I have a hard time understanding or liking characters that are painted in this light.

  4. October 26, 2010 2:34 pm

    >It is difficult to enjoy a book when you don't like the main character or their choices at all. I think I'll skip this one.

  5. October 26, 2010 3:00 pm

    >I'll pass on this too.There was a movie with a title something like Woman in Red or Lady in Red (I forget) and the entire movie was about the female lead's adultery. As a comedy. Huh. That is just not funny to me.

  6. October 26, 2010 3:03 pm

    >I don't think I would like this book for the same reason you don't. So I will give it a miss. But I DID like the XKCD comic! I think that everyone has certain sorts of things about which they make "non-constructive" comments. I know I do. Definitely a perspective from which to observe ourselves in hopes of being better.

  7. October 26, 2010 6:28 pm

    >Hmm. It has been many many years since I've read Laurie Colwin, but I did love her books when I read them. It may have been the idea that life was more complicated than you thought that appealed to me. I think I'll take a look at them again. It may be that you picked the wrong one — or it may be that they might appeal to someone who is 24, but not someone, in my case, who is 51.

  8. October 27, 2010 1:49 am

    >I can see being frustrated with a book if you don't agree with the main character's choices, it's happened to me before. I agree with Iris – it's hard when adultery seems like a normal, accepted approach to problems when I don't really think it is. I also love that xkcd – they've been on a role making fun of terrible online commenters lately.

  9. October 27, 2010 12:41 pm

    >FreshHell, at some point I guess I'll try another by her. I'm not feeling any urgency about it, though.Karenlibrarian, I'll keep Goodbye Without Leaving in mind; might have to do some interlibrary loan.Iris, to be fair, Polly scandalizes herself with the adulterous behavior, so it's not normal. Except that in the end, it is, for her.Kathy, it sure is–and I don't think it was just my mood this week; I think the character would have rubbed me the wrong way whenever I read this one.Elizabeth, I must have missed the Lady in Red movie; good thing. Now the song is playing in my head "the lady in red…the fellas are crazy for the lady in red…"CSchu, I sure would like to see those constructive bot comments! I've actually seen some spam attempts lately–there's a weird subgenre of spam where a bot says something to the effect of "thank you this helped me in my college class."ReadersGuide, I also wondered if the one I read was a bit dated, although when I looked it was published around 1985 I think (whoops, already took it back to the library).Kim, it seems to me that xkcd is considering the anonymity of the internet, kind of like conversations about the anonymity of bigger cities years ago.

  10. October 27, 2010 2:02 pm

    >I think the movie was called Woman in Red, and I've actually seen it — I thought it was terrible. I just searched for it on Imdb and apparently it's a remake of a French film, which is probably why the adultery is so accepted. And I don't mean to be a spoiler, but Goodbye without Leaving has some of the same themes as Family Happiness, so you might not like it.

  11. October 27, 2010 7:19 pm

    >Karenlibrarian–oh yes, I remember reading about The Woman in Red as a French film! Thanks for the tip about Goodbye Without Leaving. Since Jenny at Shelf Love recommends it, I may try Happy All the Time next. But I'm going to wait a while and eat some sherbet, like between courses, to clear my palate.

  12. October 29, 2010 2:59 pm

    >Haven't read the book, but like you I can be very judgmental about a morally flawed protagonist who doesn't suffer sufficiently for it. To take a wildly different example, in the Wimpy Kid movie, the main character is a complete jerk for 89 minutes, during which he has a pretty bad time of it, but his redemption comes as a single selfless act in the last 3 minutes accompanied by an annoying speech. It's too easy, and left me wishing that he'd ended the year with no friends at all. A morally flawed character should only be let off the hook based on a single heroic act if that act results in his/her death or, in rare cases, serious injury. Otherwise, redemption needs to be like climbing a staircase, and the more flawed the character, the longer and steeper the staircase needs to be.

  13. October 29, 2010 4:13 pm

    >Unfocused Me, I tend to agree. But I think you're even more of a moralist than I am!

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