As much as I wished otherwise, I have for some time felt an irritating pressure to read books considered edifying or important for their grave subject matter this year. I sell books as my day job. Starting last summer, the number of orders for nominally anti-racist titles that had depressing unironic phrases like “How To” and “This Is How” were flying off the shelves. The widespread unrest of 2020 has by now firmly settled into some requisite performative gestures, namely reading, talking about what you were reading, and underlining how that reading made you a better person. While there were slightly less of those same books being asked for and sold in 2021, the vibe amongst many non-black customers was still paranoid, about their morals and their historical understanding of race and gender and their general goodness as people, defined by what they bought and by whom.
If any of them had asked me what the best book I read in 2021 was, I would have said it was a 1978 comedy of manners about a group of well-to-do white people. Namely, Happy All The Time by Laurie Colwin, which I thumbed through and bought because Penguin reissued all of Colwin’s books and that particular title caught my eye.
In addition to looking for something fun to read, I stuck with Colwin because hers was the only novel that would hold my frenzied attention. My list for 2021 isn’t nearly as long as I’d like (whose ever is), but it’s by far the most varied in terms of genre: historical music criticism, medieval poetry, cosmic horror, some lit theory, and a smattering of classics. Out of everything, unexpectedly, I’ve thought about Colwin and Happy All The Time the most.
There’s a lot of wondering in the novel. We follow Guido Morris and Vincent Cardworthy, third cousins and best friends who worry that they’re adult-sized children, going through the motions and responsibilities of a grown-up life without any of the verve, understanding, or commitment to seriousness they believe it’s supposed to entail. Among other things, Colwin is a master of concision; she boils my description down to its witty essence: “At college, they fooled around, spent money, and wondered what would become of them when they grew up.” After they graduate and secure good jobs, which Colwin swiftly takes us through after less than two pages, she writes, “With their futures somewhat assured, they lolled around Cambridge and wondered whom they would marry.”
Colwin is wonderfully economical, folding in behavior, personal history, and a palpable sense of individuality in the span of a few sentences. “Guido was not in the habit of falling in love with girls he saw on buses or in museums. He had two serious love affairs and a small number of casual encounters. These he tried not to think about – they had puzzled and hurt him.” When Guido sees Holly at a museum, he knows immediately that she’s the love of his life. Rather than fuss with convincing the reader that there is something deep and considered about this, Colwin simply writes, “Her face seemed to print itself on his heart indelibly.” When Vincent first kisses Misty, the love of his life, he’s already so immediately smitten that he sounds as if he’s talking about a different person entirely. “‘I’ve been behaving oddly,’ said Vincent. ‘Yesterday I kissed a girl.’”
Happy All The Time could be crassly tossed off as a book about snobby rich people where nothing happens. This is a common (and unfair) criticism of much of Colwin’s work. Once, in an interview with the Washington Post, Colwin recalled, "Someone once said they wished a bunch of revolutionaries would shoot up my characters from a bus.” But it’s really about the lead up to and the come down of something very consequential happening: love. Colwin’s sense of humor embeds itself in the thorniness and anxieties of her characters, who are gifted with the clarity of knowing they’re in love, but not knowing what to do about it. Holly decided to isolate herself for a week so that she can be sure of the purity and depth of her feelings. Misty, probably one of my favorite characters ever, puffs out her spiky exterior in order to protect her hearts. “Don’t mess around with me when I’m in a state,” she warns Vincent. “I’ll tell you something you don’t know. I’m awfully glad I’m here with you. If you use that against me, I’ll kill you personally.”
Rarely has the various shapes love takes been rendered in such funny, idyllic, wise terms. There’s the all-consuming, day-brightening version, where all one can think about is when they’ll be touching and kissing their beloved next. There’s also the more reserved, but no less intense version, the kind that operates on faith in one’s partner that their love is present, that they’ll say so if that changes. I often think about one scene between Holly and Guido, after Holly has returned from her self-imposed isolation before agreeing to marry him:
“And you’re sure you love me enough to get married?” said Guido.
“Don’t be silly,” said Holly. “Of course I am.”
“And what makes you think so?”
“Guido, I can’t be grilled on these subjects. I gave you a list of things I loved about you. I told you why I loved you. Now why can’t I simply love you and not talk about it all the time?”
In the novel’s depiction of neurotic, young upper-middle-class white people running around a city and the suburbs trying to hold onto the intensity of their romantic feelings, what really comes through isn’t a commentary or a statement on class, or privilege, or race, even though all of those things are in the novel, but a compelling, almost melancholic portrait of what it would be like to live life in accordance with one’s most urgent emotions, relatively free from material concerns, while also trying, earnestly but a little solipsistically, to be decent.
There’s been a dichotomy of thought lately about the function novels like Happy All The Time serve. Any writing worth talking about must always be doing something, contributing to the culture, enriching understanding, expanding horizons. The utility foisted on art creates a certain paranoia about the goodness or rightness of the things that move us. This year, I kept coming back to the experience of reading Happy All The Time, joyous and poignant and over too soon, easily the most moving thing I read in 2021. Insofar as this novel was doing something it was this: calling me back to it, time and again. That is a rare thing, and more than enough .
Rachel Syme, in The New Yorker, quotes Colwin from a 1990 interview where she says, “One of the things that bothers me about the way I am viewed is that people say, ‘Oh, the books have happy endings.’ There is not one single happy ending in any book written by me. They are all unresolved endings.” Happy All The Time ends at the zenith of the goodness that comes to Guido, Vincent, Holly, and Misty. They’ve all married and begun to find their ways as couples, with the requisite workplace frustrations, thwarted creative ambitions, and petty miscommunications that were present before they shacked up. At a picnic, they clink glasses, and immediately a sense of sadness sets in over all of them. They know their happiness won’t last forever. But, Colwin suggests, it will come back. It’s a matter of if these four people, and maybe by extension the reader, can find meaning, fulfilment, and humor in the time between. Colwin keenly observed love and its entanglement with the mundanity of everyday life in a way that not only made me cry, but also made me think differently about my own relationships. I didn’t set out to be taught and I learned something anyway.
Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.