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 Austenâ€™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, 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 mightnâ€™t guess it if you hadnâ€™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 — â€œmore identifiably old American than Jewishâ€ 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 parentsâ€™ stolid dining room table for smoked salmon on toast pointsâ€”definitely not bagels, that Oestjuden [Eastern Jewish] delight — and subtle chiding from their mother, who has so instilled in Polly her rigid ideas about womenâ€™s deportment and obligations that poor Polly almost has a breakdown, at one point, when sheâ€™s forced to go grocery shopping on a Sunday.
Polly is a wonderful character, struggling, all too humanly, not to understand but to suppress her conflicting desires for â€œcomfort, orderâ€ — and danger and provocation. Colwin by no means ruminates on Pollyâ€™s Jewishness — or that of her family. But for me Colwinâ€™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.