Joanna Smith Rakoff: Parallel Lives

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In her last blog, Joanna Smith Rakoff wrote about how, in her own way, Jane Austen wrote about being an undercover Jewish writer.

Laurie Colwin was, in a way, a sort of heir to Austen’s charms, even if her novels are the opposite of marriage plots: Her female characters struggle endlessly with the confines and meaning of contemporary marriage (contemporary, that is, circa the 1970s and 1980s; Colwin died, at 48, in 1992). Many, if not most, of her characters are jewish authors blogJewish, but none more interestingly so than those in Family Happiness, her most fully-realized novel and a sort of gloss on (or rebuke of) Madame Bovary, a novel about a happily married matron, Polly Solo-Miller Demarest, involved in an ongoing affair with a depressive painter. Who happens, of course, to be Jewish, though you mightn’t guess it if you hadn’t been told on the very first page.

The Solo-Millers are one of those old Jewish families — settled in New York even before the German banking dynasties, like the Schiffs and the Warburgs — “more identifiably old American than Jewish” with vast, dark uptown apartments, and summer houses in Maine, and traditions as labyrinthine and ingrained as any prep school. On Sundays, Polly and her brothers gather around their parents’ stolid dining room table for smoked salmon on toast points—definitely not bagels, that Oestjuden [Eastern Jewish] delight — and subtle chiding from their mother, who has so instilled in Polly her rigid ideas about women’s deportment and obligations that poor Polly almost has a breakdown, at one point, when she’s forced to go grocery shopping on a Sunday.

family happinessPolly is a wonderful character, struggling, all too humanly, not to understand but to suppress her conflicting desires for “comfort, order” — and danger and provocation. Colwin by no means ruminates on Polly’s Jewishness — or that of her family. But for me Colwin’s lack of chatter about exactly how and why the Solo-Millers are Jewish is precisely what makes them familiar and comprehensible as Jews: They exist in a milieu so thoroughly and completely Jewish that their identity (or religion) never comes into question.

It is simply woven into the fabric of their beings, as it is for so many American Jews. For Polly, her affair with the decidedly not-Jewish Lincoln, whose values and temperament are almost the opposite of those of everyone else in her life (everyone else being Jewish, of course), serves as a sort of questioning of her world, a pressing at its confines. In a way, the deeply iconoclastic decision she makes toward the novel’s end — I’m going to try not to reveal it –serves as a metaphor for the sometimes uneasy, sometimes happy manner in which secular American Jews live sort of parallel lives, at once both fully American and fully Jewish (even if they don’t necessarily think of it that way).

In the next installment: Margaret Drabble’s pitch-perfect depiction of multicultural mid-1990s London.

Joanna Smith Rakoff, author of A Fortunate Age and former editor of Nextbook.org, is guest-blogging for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

Posted on July 28, 2009

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