A Big Storm Knocked It Over
by Laurie Colvin
Harper Collins Press, $22.00
All angst-ridden American parents who question the prevalence of violence and strife in the media should read Laurie Colwin's final novel, A Big Storm Knocked It Over. When they emerge blinking with stupefaction from this warm and cuddly narrative of domestic tranquility, they'll be begging for gratuitous blood-letting. If tragedy enthralls us with its cathartic resonance, and comedy with the pleasure of averted tragedy, then Colwin must have hoped to seduce us with sheer banality. There's no narrative crescendo, no crisis, no risk of a crisis; in short, no plot. You can revel in the lucid, elegant prose until you're blue in the face, but A Big Storm Knocked It Over constitutes the acid-proof proof that happy stories about happy people makes for unhappy reading.
Colwin narrates a year in the life of newly-wed Jane Parker, her husband Teddy and various friends and relations. Jane worries that she'll lose her job, but in the end she doesn't. Jane worries that her husband doesn't really love her, but decides on reflection that he does. Jane worries about having a baby, but it all turns out all right. Jane worries that she won't resist the advances of Sven, her lusting colleague, but manages to in the end. The readers worry that they will expire with frustration...
The failure of the narrative lies not so much in the crushingly mundane subject-matter as in Colwin's crushingly mudane treatment of it. She wheels forth a drab plot wrapped up in cardboard characters and unrealistic dialogue. Her clear, competent prose would serve as the ideal vehicle for conveying some idea, if only she had an idea to convey.
As it stands in A Big Storm Knocked It Over, Colwin's idea is that normal men and women can sometimes lead reasonably happy lives. This insight hardly merits the implied crisis of the big storm of her title. Colwin draws a parallel between a sudden thunder-storm in the country which knocks physical things over, and marriage, pregnancy and parenthood, which knock abstract things over. Don't fret, she advises, it's not the end of the world. Yeah, and? The book does not empower the reader to face the world; it does not inspire the reader to have faith in the future; it does not capture the reader's imagination. Colwin's book barely engages the reader at all. To her credit, the sheer cozy vapidity of her work generates a vaguely uplifting feeling in the end. After 259 insipid pages, the reader deserves more.
True to form, Colwin's hero and heroine are just regular folk. They don't want to cause any trouble. Although carefully crafted, they certainly don't break the mold of characterization. Teddy plunges periodically into brooding funks stemming from the deep spring of childhood neglect and a broken family; otherwise, he reassures his wife with his deliberate, undaunted demeanor. Jane Louise gnaws rabbitlike at her anxieties, the classic neurotic New York Jew.
Flatter than Texas, flimsier than New Year's resolutions, Colwin's supporting cast garnishes her narrative with outright cliches. Jane Louise's schoolmate, Edie, scandalizes her wealthy WASP family when she drops out of cooking school in Paris to marry Mokie, a Black man. Mokie, in turn, laughs at how uncomfortable he makes white people feel when they mistake him for a waiter. Sven, Jane Louise's colleague, manages to think and talk about nothing but sex, to send a frisson of enigma and anticipation down every woman's spine, yet maintain his job as director of the design department of an important publishing house. Erna, Jane Louise's boss, spawns a brood of children and grandchildren, wears sensible tweeds, bakes cakes, attends P.T.A. meetings, and harbours a secret crush on Sven. The idealist secretary soullessly dates her high school sweetheart, and plans a lacey wedding. The country friends lead picture-perfect robust outdoor lives.
Colwin probably intends these paragons of unoriginal thinking as types, to highlight Jane Louise's `normal' abnormality. We all worry because we don't lead lives of endless Kodak moments strung together, but no one really does, Colwin reassures. This cunning ruse fails, in part because Jane Louise just isn't that normally abnormal, but mainly because it makes for dull reading.
Most critics praise Colwin highly for her prose, which they rightly credit with wry, elegant clarity. When she merely narrates, Colwin's unusual voice charms the reader. But she puts this remarkably stylish turn of phrase in the mouths of her less-than-remarkable protagonists. Stilted, unnatural dialogue results.
If you're looking for a whiz-banging pageturner, an unputdownable crackerjack, a humdinging literary tour de force, a ripping yarn, look elsewhere. Laurie Colwin has written several delightful, original books. Her last, A Big Storm Knocked It Over, isn't one of them.