There are hard-edge, leading-edge and cutting-edge writers, and there are the soft-center ones. Critical pantheons tend to reserve rooms for the former and hang out no-vacancy signs for the latter. There's justification for this but it is not unqualified. Quite a bit of writing, praised for boldness and shock value when it appears, turns out to be mainly edge with nothing to follow.
As for the soft-center middlebrow, if you like--middle-class stories of domestic pleasures and travails, usually with happy or at least bittersweet endings--some are deceptive. Steel filings turn up inside. They cut, not on the edge but within. A powerful example is Anne Tyler, whose best work jars our sense of the world as much or more than Cormac McCarthy's or Maureen Howard's--and certainly more than Donna Tartt's. So, though harsher on the surface, does Alice McDermott's. Both are among our best writers.
Although not in the class of a Tyler or a McDermott, the late Laurie Colwin had some enchantingly dissonant surprises at the heart of her best work: "Happy All the Time," in my view, and "Goodby Without Leaving." There was a measure of softness in both and, particularly in the second, a whiff of the self-confirming sentimentality that acts as a protective garment in a good deal of middlebrow fiction, and ensures that the reader comes out of it without significant change, let alone damage.
Humor is an important part of such sentimentality, but it too is of the self-confirming kind. When in form, though, Colwin's humor became anarchic. Never losing its manners, it subverted. The mask of comedy comments upon our solitude in space and time quite as much as the mask of tragedy. Colwin masked her mask with a relaxed urban or suburban makeup, but it was there.
It is not so much there--hardly there at all, in fact--in her last novel, "A Big Storm Knocked It Over," published within a year of her death. There are only a few glimmers of protesting wit in its conforming, if well-turned humor. It is a gentle and observant book, an urban romance that has its perils but never navigates very far from a shore of safety. It is the story of Jane, a sunny, jittery young woman and the product of a footless 1980s youth, who gropes her way to motherhood and commitment out of the amiable airiness of her world.
She works in the art department of a small but prestigious publishing house. She has just married and is trying to settle down with Teddy, her supportive and attractive husband. She has had a number of affairs and has not lost her susceptibility--a nice touch--but that is not where her settling problem lies. Rather, it is in her perpetual anxiety, her sense that she is not a real grown-up, her doubt as to how one goes from being an urban floater to the kind of person who can establish a house and a family, and Christmas and Thanksgiving celebrations, and the joyful traditional solidity she imagines.
The society around her gives little to build on. She, her husband and her best friend, Edie, come from dismally broken families. When she tries to pull together the family split-ends and organize a big Thanksgiving dinner, the parents, stepparents, siblings and stepsiblings are variously unavailable. She and Edie team up in a little celebration with Teddy and Edie's lover and catering partner, Mokie. Jane invites her widowed landlady, Mrs. Berger, who is grateful not to have to visit her sister and listen to her problems.
" 'On the holiday I like to have a little fun,' " Mrs. Berger philosophizes. " 'I always ask myself why it seems to be so hard to have a good time with one's family.' " This strikes a chord; the others conduct an inventory of awful family reunions.
The plot is a very quiet one. Jane and Edie, who has married Mokie, each has a baby. The two couples band together, a tiny community in an atomized urban world. The book ends with a Fourth of July picnic in the rural village where they all spend the summer; there are fireworks and a certain fragile contentment.
Colwin provides some small pleasures. Her portrait of the publishing house and its assorted spiky denizens is amusing and informed. Jane and Teddy, Edie and Mokie are perceptive, funny and thoroughly nice. But their sensibilities cushion them. Over and over, Jane will get stuck in a moment of agonizing doubt. Teddy, though he has his own moments of depression--we never feel them; they are more like a decorative scar--unfailingly pulls her out. There seems to be a happy ending every other chapter. With a good deal of pleasant conversation, nothing anyone says--except when Teddy says "Let's have a baby"--makes anything happen. All the mini-tornado of the title does is uproot a few trees.
"A Big Storm Knocked It Over" is a highly domesticated domestic comedy, with anxiety and ruefulness as its lower depths.