Every once in a while I read a book and think: “How have I never read this author?!” Laurie Colwin is one such author. Just as when I read Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, when I read The Lone Pilgrim, I instantly knew I was in the hands of a master, and just sat back and marveled at what she wrote. Every story is a love story, a heterosexual love story, often between people of the upper-class, and so these were not stories that screamed out to me as relate-able, but I loved every single one of them, because in each story, Colwin gets to the heart of what it is to be human. Every female protagonist is fully realized and fully human. Each woman has an occupation and interests beyond her love interests, which may not seem like such a big thing now (although by the sheer number of movies that fail the Bechdel test, having a fully realized female character still is a rarity), but when this was written in 1981, having all her female protagonists be fully independent, career driven and yet also sexual, was still a somewhat revolutionary act. The revolutionary nature of it is evident in the New York Times review of it, with Joyce Carol Oates saying in a condescending way that:
The Lone Pilgrim” cannot be recommended to those whose hearts have been pierced by the cynical notion that stereotypical ”romantic” situations are not viable as art, or who expect from a writer a great deal more, by way of characterization, than ebullient catalogues of hairstyles, clothes, sports, nicknames, hobbies, apartment furnishings and quirks of diet. Yet Miss Colwin writes with such sunny skill, and such tireless enthusiasm, that her overmined subject matter becomes insignificant
and then finishes up with the estimation that:
and at least one story, ”A Girl Skating,” which touches upon issues rather more weighty than romance, is very good indeed. ”The Lone Pilgrim” will not nudge Doris Lessing’s short fiction off the shelf – but then it is not intended to do so.
While I love Joyce Carol Oates’ writing, what she missed in her review was that weight exists not just in the obviously serious subjects like covered in “A Girl Skating,” where violence and perversion lurks, just as it does in most of Oates’ own writing, but that life itself is worthy of capturing and conveying on the page, and our lives are made up of things like our apartment furnishings, and what we eat and what we wear. While violence can be a useful tool for uncovering our real selves, it takes a certain subtle skill to strip a character down to their core when all they are doing is seeking to deal with the effects of having fallen in love. I also doubt that Joyce Carol Oates would have patronized Steinbeck or Hemingway for demonstrating a “sunny skill” in how they write about the inhabitants of Cannery Row, or what their protagonist wore and drank while watching the bull fights. Characters are created out of details, and Laurie Colwin creates a gorgeous array of characters, each one distinct despite their many similarities.
This is a book I will have to read several times to understand how she accomplishes what she does. This first read was for all pleasure, and I was too caught up in it to jot too many notes, or write down too many quotes. I did do a bit more observing of still on the title story, however, since this was, in essence, my second reading of it having just heard it on the podcast. The story begins with meditations of how the narrator is the perfect house guest, and the work of imagination that the narrator engages in, imagining the various houses as her own. This opening seems like a long period of exposition before the inciting incident occurs, covering five pages before the introduction of Gilbert Seigh, but it establishes her character in a way that cannot be short-changed. We understand her as a serious, imaginative person who has created a life she loved. She is thus a woman of substance before falling in love with Seigh. Likewise, due to this foundation, we thus also understand the seriousness of her previous love affair, because we got to know the narrator first on her own, and only later do we see how she is with her various loves. The story’s big reversal hinges on a very human tendency, of how disconcerting it can be when you get that for which you have longed. As the narrator writes:
Woe to those who get what they desire. Fulfillment leaves an empty space where your old self used to be, the self that pines and broods and reflects. (15)
She thus places her character on the brink of a major life decision, a decision of love, and she resolves this crisis action in a wholly satisfying way.
I decided to buy this book after hearing “The Lone Pilgrim” on Selected Shorts. I had heard another one of her stories, “Mr. Parker,” a year earlier on the New Yorker Fiction podcast, and had made a similar vow to read one of her books, but had failed to follow through, but now am so glad that I have. I followed through with that partly because I try to read multiple “new to me” collections a year to keep up to date on the short story because it is a genre I write, study and teach, but I also followed through on buying her book, and then reading her now, because of a pledge that I made to read 50% woman authors this year. I have been doing well with this vow, but have fallen a bit behind, with this book being my 40th book this year, and 19 of those have been by women. This is still far better than last year in which I read 19 books by women, out of 58 total. As is evident in that balance, I used to be chauvinistic in my writing, which is possible, even though I’m a woman. Being a woman doesn’t necessarily make you self-aware or a feminist, or even aware of why reading a balance of voices is good. I used to claim that I read male authors because they wrote the kind of stories I like. And that is true, but also, how am I to know if female also can write stories and books I like if I never read them? By being so biased to picking male authors over female authors, I am denying myself access to the art and thoughts of 50% of the population.
In my gender bias, I am doing what so many magazines and newspapers do in publishing men over women. This is something that that VIDA count quantifies every year, and the evidence they have compiled of gender bias is startling, like the statistic that of the 770 articles published in the New York Review of Books, 636 are by men, claiming about 84% of the publications.
Or the New Yorker publishing 555 men to 253 women.
These are major culture setting publications, biasing who gets read, who gets published, and thus who gets a voice and who’s stories get told.
There are many other ways that our reading lists are biased – racially biased, biased toward American writers, religious bias, etc., but gender bias is one key place to start, and so that is where I’ve started this year. And because of that, I read Laurie Colwin instead of reading another book by Julian Barnes, who I love, and who I will read, but not until I read Margaret Atwood, or Alice Munro, or Madeline Miller, or Edith Hamilton, all of whom are currently on my “to be read,” shelf. I am rather desperate to read Edward St. Aubyn right now, but first I will finish reading Still Writing by Dani Shapiro, and then maybe What We Ask of Flesh, by Remica Bingham, to thus reestablish the balance in my reading list for this year. And, of course, as soon as a I get to a bookstore, I’ll be picking up another Laurie Colwin book right away, and mourn the fact that Colwin died far too young, but be glad that she was so productive while she was alive. I am so glad that she found her “thing,” and that was writing. In one of my favorite of her stories, “Saint Anthony of the Desert,” she opens with the idea that:
Haphazardness as a condition of life has its usefulness, but is of a fixed duration. (135)
and ultimately the narrator finds her calling and her way in reading, researching and writing about cathedrals and saints, drawn to the stability and endurance of them, in how:
the subject had the appeal of the substantial, the enduring, the traditional, three things notably lacking in my life. The idea of permanence, of a fixed course of life, of belief, was consoling to me. (139)
Colwin seemed to have found her fixed course of life in writing, and for that I am very glad.