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Family Happinessby Laurie Colwin
Synopses & Reviews
Polly Solo-Miller Demarest was the perfect flower of the Solo-Miller family. This family had everything: looks, brains, money, a strong, fortified sense of clan, and branches in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, as well as London, just like a banking house. The patriarch of the New York gang was Henry Solo-Miller, husband of the former Constanzia Hendricks, nicknamed Wendy. Both were of old, old Jewish families, the sort that are more identifiably old American than Jewish. Solo-Millers and Hendrickses had come from Holland via Spain before the American Revolution, which they had either taken part in or helped to raise money for. Henry and Wendy had three children: Paul, Dora (called Polly by everyone), and Henry, Jr.
Polly was sandwiched between difficult brothers. Paul, a lawyer like his father, had always been mute, preoccupied, and cranky. He was said to be brilliant, but he was so silent that no one had ever really heard him say a brilliant thing. He was forty-three, unmarried, as greatly respected in the legal community as his distinguished father, and a passionate music lover. Henry, Jr., on the other hand, was a lout. He had refused to pursue the normal Solo-Miller and Hendricks occupations — law and banking — and had instead pursued his boyhood adoration of all things aerodynamic and become an aeronautical engineer. He had married Andreya Fillo, a fellow engineer, the daughter of Czech refugees. She and Henry, Jr., behaved more like brother and sister than like a married couple. They wore each other's clothes, did not plan to have children, played with their dog, and dedicated themselves to kite-flying. Henry, Jr.'s large, smelly tickhound, Kirby, was theirchild substitute and, like his master, he had resisted proper training.
It was Polly who had made grandparents of her parents. She was married to a big, handsome lawyer named Henry Demarest and had produced two nice, sturdy children: Pete, nine, and Dee-Dee, whose real name was Claire, seven and a half. These children were doted on by their grandparents, who never displayed to them the eccentricities they had displayed to their own children.
Henry, Sr., dwelt in what Polly called "the realm of the higher mind." This meant that often he was not fully present. He was a rather silent man who was set in his ways the way Rembrandts are hung on a wall-with great care, correctness, and dignity-but he was funny about food and believed that everything, from vegetables to standing ribs of beef, should be washed with soap and water before cooking, and that all eggs were to be scrubbed before being boiled. For a prank, Polly, as a teen-ager, had once put a chicken into the washing machine.
As a result of these crotchets Henry, Sr., was lied to constantly. He ate happily anything that was put before him as long as someone first assured him that everything had been grown in certifiably organic soil and washed in soap and water. The pollution of the atmosphere was one of his most beloved subjects.
Wendy never got anything right. For years she had called poor Douglas Stern "Derwood," and now everyone, including his own family, called him that. She did not actually refer to Pablo Picasso as Carlos — Polly claimed she did — but she came close. It was a family joke that Polly had married a lawyer named Henry in order not to give her mother anything to screw up.
In general, the Solo-Millerspreferred the company of their fellow Solo-Millers to that of other mortals, and they gathered frequently. Every Sunday they appeared at Henry and Wendy's at noon for a meal that some people would call lunch and others brunch. The Solo-Millers called it breakfast.
The household Polly had set up with Henry Demarest was very much like her parents'. This made perfect sense: Henry, who came from a Chicago family rather like the Solo-Millers, shared Polly's feelings about comfort, order, and the way life should be lived. They believed in harmony, generosity, and good works. As a lawyer, Henry was very well respected. He sat on the board of Pete and Dee-Dee's school; he was a Fellow of The American College of Trial Lawyers and a trustee of the school he had gone to as a boy in Chicago.
Polly had a job, too. She was Coordinator of Research in Reading Projects and Methods for the information arm of the Board of Education. That all children learn to read was Polly 's cause and it was her job to evaluate the stream of new methods, texts, and tests that poured in to the Board. This job combined some of the things Polly held most dear-service, children, and books-but for all that she was committed to it, she did not talk about it very often. Occasionally a truly crackpot reading manual would cross her desk and she would bring it home to show Henry, but otherwise she left her work at work. She felt that methods of teaching reading were chiefly of interest to other reading technicians, whereas the law was a large subject of general interest.
Polly was good at her job, good at games; and she was also a marvelous cook and housekeeper. She was neither oafish and slobby like her brother Henry, norfinicky and allergic to most common substances like her brother Paul. She had been a remarkably sweet-tempered child and as a girl had mediated any fights between Paul and Henry that had looked as if they might end up in fratricide. Those squabbles had been Paul and Henry, Jr.'s only close contact. Now they met only at family gatherings, although Polly saw both of them frequently.
She had graduated near the top of her class at a fine woman's college (which was Wendy's alma mater), had studied in France for a year, come home and worked as a reading teacher at a private school, married Henry Demarest, gotten a degree in reading education, taught in the public schools, produced Pete and Dee-Dee, and then found herself a highlevel job. She was at her office three days a week, and at home on Mondays and Fridays. This, she felt, left her plenty of time for everything — to run the house, to spend time with Pete and Dee-Dee, and to be a helpmeet and sweetheart to her husband.
In addition, she was her mother's favorite lunch companion and a great social asset. Polly was a good listener. She could bring the shy forward or placate the arrogant and hostile. Furthermore, she was always happy to provide something scrumptious for dessert. She had never given anyone the slightest pause. Her family doted on her, but no one felt it was necessary to pay much attention to someone as sturdy, upright, cheerful, and kind as she.
Polly is a happy wife and mother from a remarkable strong and attractive family — until one day she finds herself entagled in a completely unexpected, sweet, yet painful, love affair with a painter named Lincoln Bennett. All of Polly's beliefs about herself explode, uprooting what had seemed to be a settled — and everlasting — idea of family happiness.
About the Author
Laurie Colwin is the author of five novels: Happy All the Time; Family Happiness; Goodbye Without Leaving; Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object; and A Big Storm Knocked It Over; three collections of short stories: Passion and Affect, Another Marvelous Thing, and The Lone Pilgrim; and two collections of essays: Home Cooking and More Home Cooking. She died in 1992.
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