“Like Life Itself”: Laurie Colwin, A Big Storm Knocked It Over

She watched the sky light up and flash. She watched the sparkling drops that burst into brilliant sprinkles and disappeared into the velvety sky. It was magical: that deep, echoing noise, that glowing tension, that unexpected, magnificent, beautiful release, like the unexpected joy that swept you away, like life itself.

Not much goes on in Laurie Colwin’s A Big Storm Knocked It Over: a marriage, a new baby. It’s a novel about life on a small scale, but that doesn’t mean it’s trivial: as Carol Shields said about Jane Austen’s fiction, it’s a novel that “demonstrates how large narratives can occupy small spaces.” I was reading Colwin’s earlier novel Family Happiness when I wrote about this topic before, and I reported not finding that book entirely satisfactory as an example of this genre: “it seems to me a small space filled by a small narrative . . . nice as it is, it feels trivial.” I don’t remember Family Happiness clearly enough to affirm or correct this impression of it, but I can say that A Big Storm Knocked It Over seemed to me to reach further, to gesture beyond its own immediate details. It still didn’t strike me as a particularly profound book: it didn’t seem resonant with new insights. What it does, which is also what other writers of this kind that I appreciate do (Carol Shields, Anne Tyler, Joanna Trollope at her best, Lynne Sharon Schwarz especially) is seize a moment and clarify it: they can bring something ordinary into the kind of focus that shows why it matters more than you thought before. Here’s a small example from A Big Storm Knocked It Over:

She and Teddy had simply merged their possessions and were now thinking about buying a sideboard. Jane Louise had never bought a piece of furniture with another person in her life. It seemed to her an act of almost exotic intimacy. After all, anyone can sleep with anyone, but few people not closely connected purchase furniture in common.

That little bit immediately got me thinking about the furniture in my own house, which in turn reminded me of Jane Smiley’s description of Trollope as “a great analyst of marriage as a series of decisions that turn into a relationship and then, as time goes by and the children grow up, into history and architecture.” Both comments articulate the way relationships, which can seem very abstract and psychological, also have concrete, tangible aspects that oddly merge the literal and the metaphorical.

When Colwin comes up, people seem to talk a lot about her prose, and I can see why. The strength of A Big Storm Knocked It Over isn’t really its characters, though they are crisply delineated and believable (an achievement I certainly don’t mean to underestimate). Its plot, too, is well executed but minimal. It’s the voice of the novel that matters, which is often the voice of the protagonist, Jane Louise, since it is narrated in close third person with lots of free indirect discourse: wry, sharply observant, occasionally but self-consciously sentimental. There are lots of good epigrammatic moments (“Soon the holidays would be upon them like an oncoming train, loaded with complicated feelings”) but also, more rarely, passages that (like my epigraph) expand into something more and unexpectedly poetic.

I think that if I were in a different phase of my own life I might have reacted more strongly to Colwin’s depiction of early marriage and the transition into parenthood. Instead, I was most moved by the scene in which Jane Louise, her own child only five months old, happens across a father loading his college-age son’s possessions into the car:

It was nearing the end of the academic year. Everywhere she looked students were lugging boxes of books, clothes, and standing lamps out of their dorms. She stood on the sidewalk and watched a serious young boy haul two duffel bags into the trunk of his father’s car and dash into a building. His father, a gray-haired man with a wide chest and a linen sports jacket, was loading the trunk. Jane Louise stood perfectly still, blinded by the sunny glare. Hazy light poured down around her.

Someday Miranda would grow up and go to college. Day would follow day: She would lose her baby teeth. Her adult teeth would come in. She would go to school, learn to read, go to high school, have boyfriends, leave home. To her amazement, Jane Louise found herself in tears. Her throat got hot, and tears poured down her cheeks. She felt powerless to brush them away or to move.

“You must think I’m a nut,” she says ruefully to the man when he asks her if she’s okay. “When my kid went to sleep-away camp for the first time,” he replies, “I wanted to lie down in the driveway and eat dirt.” This moment of understanding fills Jane Louise with relief and happiness: “Thank you,” she says; “Oh, thank you.”

Those are the kind of moments we (or I, anyway) read fiction like this for. It’s not simply the solipsistic pleasure of seeing something you’ve experienced reflected back at you, shaped into something more elegant than your own amorphous feelings and memories could create–though that is part of it. Right now my own children are almost gone: one basically moved out, the other, though still at home, less and less tethered to it and to us. My feelings about this are more complicated than I ever would have predicted during the years when the demands of parenthood seemed nearly overwhelming; more than once I have been caught in a wave of nostalgia as intense as what Jane Louise feels just anticipating the changes to come. The recognition I feel reading this scene also brings a comforting sense of connection, reassurance that there is a story to be told about these everyday pains and joys.