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Review | How I learned that literature doesn’t have to be miserable

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The characters in “Happy All the Time,” Laurie Colwin’s 1978 novel, spend a surprising amount of time being unhappy. “He had never felt so miserable in his life,” Colwin writes of Vincent Cardworthy as he attempts to ask Misty Berkowitz out for a drink. Misty responds with a flat “I don’t drink.” When he asks if she has other plans, she says, “No.”

Vincent’s problem, of course, is that he’s in love. Luckily for Vincent, in Laurie Colwin’s world, the brief torture of falling in love is just prelude to the lifelong joy of finding your love requited. When Misty says yes, she’ll go to dinner with him instead, he feels “relief flooding his muscles the way morphine does.”

I read “Happy All the Time” when I, too, was feeling miserable. My problem was that I was turning 40, and among the many crises that engendered, I was very upset that I had not yet written a novel. Literary novels, of the sort I’d always imagined myself writing, were serious affairs. I still remembered the words of a famous writer who visited my MFA program, the program that ended with me failing to write a dark, intense novel. “The job of an author,” he’d said, “is to make life as difficult as possible for his characters.” In that difficulty, he explained, character is revealed.

But reading my mass-market paperback of “Happy All the Time,” with the big red heart on the cover — a book jacket I wouldn’t have been caught dead with in that MFA program — I wondered if it was possible that wasn’t true. Colwin doesn’t make it as difficult as possible for her characters. She loves them and rewards them with happy lives, revealing her characters as clearly in joy as other authors do in anguish. In her books, characters may get angry with one another, but the anger dissipates with a simple apology and a good cry, and not one but two chapters end with the characters toasting with champagne.

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That doesn’t mean that the novel is devoid of conflict, or that the foursome of the novel are love-silly morons without a care in the world. Even on the cusp of marriage, one character trudges up Central Park West, feeling as though the four chambers of her heart are “filled with love, dread, confusion, and certainty.” But, on the brink of my fifth decade, I felt safe in Colwin’s hands, because I understood, somehow, that she would never be too cruel to her characters — that even when they feel sadness, it’s a setup. As in a joke, we await the punchline: The champagne bubbles of happiness Colwin gives her characters again and again. The book is a comedy, and its promise is that those punchlines will keep coming — that life may sometimes make you miserable, but it is possible to navigate those dangers and remain buoyant.

It was after reading “Happy All the Time” that I started writing fiction again, after decades away. My only goal, at first, was to write scenes that made me feel the way “Happy All the Time” made me feel as I read it. It was the only way I could keep myself going, honestly, writing while navigating family life and a job and the very typical problems of a sandwich-generation dad. And so when I found myself edging toward darkness, I steered toward the light instead. Writing at 10:45 at night, after I’d put the kids to bed, I just didn’t have it in me to put my own characters, or myself, through truly terrible things.

I felt invigorated: I was enjoying what I was writing! What a concept. But was it a book? What kind of book was it? What did it mean for my old literary dreams, to write a book that wouldn’t seem out place with a big heart on its cover?

Soon, I found the story I was making gave me the chance to address this very issue. My heroine, Emily, works in book publishing in 1990s New York. In her early twenties, her taste is still forming, and when she has the opportunity to work with a novel that, like “Happy All the Time,” is about “perfectly nice young people with perfectly normal relationship problems,” she resists. She tries to get the author to darken the book, and the author tells her, “I was sad for a long time, and right now I just want to write characters who are happy.” It takes a while, but Emily comes to understand the value of the book, and the importance of writing about happiness.

My novel, called “Vintage Contemporaries,” is also about people who are happy and happiness. That doesn’t mean that the characters also don’t feel sad sometimes. There’s a character in the book who’s a tribute to Colwin and, given that Colwin died at 48, it’s not hard to see what’s coming. It just means that I, too, am making a promise to readers. I’m going to be kind to all my characters, just like Colwin was. I’m going to let them resolve their problems with an apology and a good cry.

And I hope readers will still learn just as much about them, and about themselves, as they would if I put us all through the wringer.

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