Choosing a likable family

November 07, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Staff Writer

Neither Jane Louise and Teddy Parker nor their best friends, Edie Steinhaus and Mokie Frazier, are on particularly close terms with their families.

Jane Louise's widowed mother is remarried and busy with a social life that does not include -- or interest -- her daughter. Teddy's parents' brief marriage ended in an acrimonious divorce. And the Steinhauses and the Fraziers are uncomfortable to the point of denial with their offspring's interracial romance.

In the novel "A Big Storm Knocked It Over," these friends solve familial problems by creating a new type of family whose ties are determined not by blood, but by a genuine desire for each other's company.

On Christmas night, which the two couples celebrate together at a Vermont inn, Teddy holds Jane Louise tightly as they skate on a frozen pond. "He knew perfectly well that in this world few events pop off so well, and few families and friends gather so peacefully," Colwin tells us. "He did not want to say that this evening had been lovely because Mokie and Edie were their family by choice."

"A Big Storm Knocked It Over" is the last novel by Laurie Colwin, a gifted writer who died unexpectedly in 1992 of a heart attack at age 48. In an age that is often hurried, action-packed and even violent, she wrote books with such simple but optimistic titles as "Happy All the Time," "Family Happiness" and "Another Marvelous Thing."

She narrowed her focus to bright, well-educated adults who live on the East Coast and who struggle to create caring, satisfying relationships. In this case, Jane Louise is a book designer for a New York publisher, Teddy is a chemist, and Edie and Mokie run a specialty catering business that concocts culinary works of art out of spun sugar.

The catering subplot is typical of Colwin, who, in addition to her works of fiction, wrote a collection of essays and recipes called "Home Cooking," as well as the yet-to-be-released "More Home Cooking." The juxtaposition of essays and recipes was not as strange as it might seem. Colwin celebrated comfort food, and she wrote comfort prose.

But "comfort" should not be mistaken for "ease." Characters in Colwin's novels challenge, question and struggle with their feelings, and there is as much passion in their tiny corner of 20th-century American society as in the intricately detailed 19th-century British society of Jane Austen.

"A Big Storm" begins shortly after Jane Louise and Teddy's wedding and ends shortly after she and Edie have given birth to their first children -- born only a few weeks apart, just as the friends always planned. They realize there's no concrete reason their children should feel more warmly toward them than they do toward their own parents. But their hopes outweigh their fears, and with hope comes a feeling of well-being that embraces them and the reader as well.

The unusually ominous title of this last, lovely novel led me to expect tragedy to befall Colwin's appealing characters, whom I came to regard as something of a surrogate family of my own. Instead, the book ends with the two couples and their infants watching fireworks on the Fourth of July. "It was magical," Jane Louise realizes, "that deep, echoing noise, that glowing tension, that unexpected, magnificent, beautiful release, like the unexpected joy that swept you away, like life itself."

The tragedy belongs not to Colwin's characters, who look forward to fulfilling lives, but to their creator, whose death came far too soon, especially for those who cherish her writing.

Title: "A Big Storm Knocked It Over"

Author: Laurie Colwin

Publisher: HarperCollins

Length, price: 259 pages, $22

Ms. Rousuck is theater critic of The Sun.

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