“If anyone wrote eloquently and magnificently about affairs of the heart, it was Laurie Colwin” (San Francisco Chronicle). In this stunning volume, which gathers together her three brilliant story collections, the beloved author of Home Cooking explores the mysteries of life and love with her signature blend of empathy, wisdom, and wit.
Passion and Affect: From two ornithologists who find their own mating habits to be just as inscrutable as those of their avian subjects to a lonely husband whose search for exotic hobbies leads him to television, junk food, and a young woman with Technicolor green hair, the heroes and heroines of Colwin’s debut story collection are clever, naïve, brave, delicate, and fickle. In other words, they are profoundly human, and their precisely observed, warmly intelligent stories capture nothing less than what it means to be alive in the modern world.
The Lone Pilgrim: In the title story of this elegant and insightful collection, a book illustrator meets the man of her dreams and struggles to say goodbye to her old self. “A Mythological Subject” is the tale of an adulterous affair that arrives unexpected and unwanted, like a natural disaster, but is no mistake. “A Girl Skating” is a delicate and haunting portrait of the unbridgeable divide between life and art, poetry and nature. “One reads with fascination the steps by which lovers in one story after another stumble upon their forthright declarations” (The New York Times Book Review).
Another Marvelous Thing: These “witty, literate, and intelligent” linked stories are told from the alternating perspectives of two adulterous lovers (The New York Times Book Review). Josephine “Billy” Delielle and Francis Clemens are economists married to other people, but the similarities end there. He is fastidious; she is a slob. He delights in good food and fine wine; her refrigerator is always empty. He is old and sentimental; she is young and tough minded. Charting their electrifying affair from beginning to end, this exquisite story collection tackles the thorniest of subjects with honesty, grace, and humor.
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About the Author
Laurie Colwin (1944–1992) was born in Manhattan and raised in Lake Ronkonkoma, Long Island; Chicago; and Philadelphia. She attended Bard College and Columbia University and worked as a translator and book editor before selling her first story, at the age of twenty-five, to the New Yorker. She went on to publish eight critically acclaimed works of fiction and two beloved collections of essays and recipes—Home Cooking and More Home Cooking—in addition to writing a food column for Gourmet magazine and contributing regularly to Mademoiselle and Redbook. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “if anyone wrote eloquently and magnificently about affairs of the heart, it was Laurie Colwin.”
Date of Birth:June 14, 1944
Date of Death:October 25, 1992
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Place of Death:New York, New York
Education:B.A., Bard College; M.A., Columbia University
Read an Excerpt
Nothing is more easy than to tame an animal and few things are more difficult than to get it to breed freely in confinement, even in the many cases when the male and female unite.
— Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species
On the roof of the East Wing of the American Naturalist Museum was a greenhouse, blocked from public view by turrets and façades. The skylights could be opened with a brass pole. Every third pane was a window. In midmorning, and sometimes in the afternoon, Roddy Phelps went up the spiral staircase to the finch room of the greenhouse and took a nap.
It was the middle of March, and Roddy was feeling slightly but constantly chilled. The weather made no sense to his body, although he knew it was supposed to be cold before the beginning of spring. Even on the coldest, rainiest days, the greenhouse was warm and faintly tropic. Birdcages were arranged on rows of pine tables, and on an empty table in the farthest row, by the window, Roddy took his naps. He had stashed a car pillow under a shelf in a paper bag.
The greenhouse was filled with potted ferns, palms, and heather. Ivy hung from crossbeams in mossy wire baskets. Each species of bird had its own room. Drifting off to sleep, Roddy was soothed by the diminutive, random noises the birds made — twitters, clacks, and cheeps, which he thought of as auditory litter. Once in a while, he brought a transistor radio with him and listened to the birds counterpointing Mozart.
The year before, Roddy's wife, Garlin, had left him, taking their child, Sara Justina, and retired to the country. At Thanksgiving, New Year's, and Easter, Roddy drove to Templeton, New Hampshire, and collected Sara Justina, who spent these holidays and a part of the summer with Roddy and his parents in Westchester. The rest of the time, silence was generally maintained between New York and Templeton, except for legal occasions when separation, alimony, divorce, and child-support papers passed between Roddy and Garlin. These entailed long conversations with the lawyers for both sides, and expensive, jagged long-distance calls from New York to New Hampshire.
The last week in March there was a brief hot spell, and Roddy's chill became more acute. Dampness settled in his bones. He began to think that he was suffering from eyestrain and spent dizzy, unfocused, and dislocated days feeling as if he were hung over. The naps in the finch room sometimes helped, but often they made his unfocused condition worse and he staggered off the table while the room went black, yellow, and dazzling gray in front of his eyes.
After Garlin's departure, Roddy had gone into a work spurt that produced two papers on the social behavior of caged finches — one for Scientific American and one for American Birds. The uncorrected galleys of both had been lying on his desk for several months. Then he started on the breeding and nesting patterns of the African finch in captivity. He had been studying this aspect of the finch since December but had run into trouble, as his finches seemed unwilling to breed in their large Victorian cages and appeared uninterested in building nests out of the pampas grass, string, and clover he provided for them.
Roddy had a corner office on the sixth floor of the museum, which housed the Department of Animal Behavior. He kept two pairs of finches there — Aggie and Bert, Gem and Russell — pets, not experimental birds, who had been left by a colleague departing for the Galápagos. When Roddy arrived in the morning, he let them out of their cage, and in the evening he spent an hour getting them back in.
The finch room was his exclusively. There was a greenhouse caretaker, José Jacinto Flores, whose job it was to clean the cages and feed the birds, but, by friendly edict, in the finch room Roddy took care of this himself. José Jacinto had appropriated a back room where he kept a tank of tropical fish and a pair of lovebirds who warbled tenderly to each other. He was a wiry, squat man, the color of cherry wood, and Roddy often saw him smoking a cheroot with the windows open, speaking softly in Spanish to his birds.
The table Roddy napped on was the last in a series of four. He was blocked by cages of birds and pots of palm and heather that shut him off from view, he thought, since he could never see anything through them.
On the last Thursday in March, Roddy left his office and went up to the greenhouse. He had not slept well the night before, tossing and brooding about his experiments, settling finally into a brief, unrefreshing sleep. A few minutes before in his office, the telephone rang and it was Garlin to tell him that Sara Justina had bronchitis.
"Did you call just to tell me that?" Roddy asked. Garlin almost never called him when Sara Justina was sick.
"Bronchitis isn't a cold," said Garlin.
"What am I supposed to do? Do you want me to come up to Templeton?"
"I thought you should know she's sick, and, by the way, did your lawyer call mine about the final papers?"
"I have to check," said Roddy.
"It's your life," Garlin said.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means that you should have checked a month ago. You have no idea what's serious and what isn't. Your marriage is being disbanded and you haven't even bothered to call your lawyer."
"I've been working very hard, Garlin, and I think this whole thing is unpleasant enough without remarks like that."
"That's why your marriage is being disbanded," said Garlin, and she hung up.
The finches peered from the curtain rod. Aggie, his favorite, flew down and sat on his dictionary. Roddy watched her, feeling tired and worn down, like a statue battered by the weather. In the dove room he noticed it was raining. The sky was silvery, and drops hit the glass on a slant. At the entrance to the finch room, chilled and desperate for his nap, he discovered a girl standing in front of one of the cages. She had some millet seed on the tips of her fingers and was waiting patiently for one of the birds to take it from her.
"What are you doing here?" Roddy said.
The girl didn't move her hand but turned to look at him. She was a small girl in a gray lab coat, whose thick, ashy hair was loosely knotted at her neck. She had an oval, symmetrical face and eyes that were an intense, almost colorless gray. Under the lab coat she was wearing a gray skirt, sweater, and brown stockings.
"I'm sorry," she said. "Are these your birds?"
"Yes, and I'd like to know what you're doing here."
"I'm awfully sorry. I'm down on the fifth floor with Dr. Reddicker, working on song patterns. Until yesterday I didn't even know there was a greenhouse here, so I just came up to see what it was like. Sorry."
"Are you new here?" Roddy said.
"I started a couple of months ago. I'm Dr. Reddicker's assistant, in the doctoral program."
"After you've been here a while, you get hysterical about security."
The first three floors of the museum were open to the public and contained, in addition to cases of stuffed birds in replicas of their natural habitats, a bookstore, a small but rare gem collection, the letters and papers of John James Audubon, and several galleries filled with paintings, drawings, sculpture, and tapestries of birds. It was the largest and best collection of its kind in the world. The rest of the museum was devoted to research and teaching facilities, and rigid security was maintained. All members of the staff, from the ornithologists and researchers to the girls in the bookstore, wore plastic tags bearing their names and color photographs. Roddy stepped closer to the girl. Her tag read "Mary Leibnitz," and the photograph looked as if it had taken her by surprise. Roddy's tag was pinned to his jacket in his office.
"I'm Raiford Phelps," he said.
"This tag embarrasses me," Mary Leibnitz said. "Everyone knows my name before I'm introduced."
"Do you want to be shown around?" Roddy asked. She nodded, and he steered her through the parrot room, the sicklebills, woodpeckers, and hummingbirds. He led her back through the finches, canaries, and doves.
She stopped before a cage of pigeons. "I love the sound they make," she said. "It's kind of a gurgle. I've tried to imitate it, but I can't. Thanks very much for showing me through."
He watched her as she walked toward the stairs. She had a serious kind of grace, as if she alone were responsible for holding herself together. Roddy got his pillow from the shelf, took off his shoes, and lay down on the pine table. He leaned down to turn on his radio, but the thought of music suddenly upset him. The finches chirped him into sleep.
It became colder and less springlike. There were days when Roddy could barely keep his eyes open. He began to take two naps — one in the morning and one in the afternoon. He paced in his office, skimmed his galleys, went to bed early, twisting, brooding, unable to sleep. He made several trips to the fifth floor to look for Mary Leibnitz. He met her once briefly in the hallway and told her that if she came to his office he would show her what he was working on. Walking past her office one day, he saw her sitting diminutively next to Ethel Reddicker, a large redheaded woman, going over a series of charts. A week went by and Mary Leibnitz did not appear at his office.
Every Sunday night, Roddy called Templeton to speak to Sara Justina, with whom he had long baby conversations, followed by terse, practical conversations with Garlin. Mondays he awoke feeling drained. It seemed that on Monday it always rained or was overcast. He began to oversleep in the finch room, and he brought an alarm clock with him.
One Monday he forgot to set it and woke to find Mary Leibnitz standing by a cage looking at him; he blinked to get the blackness out of the room and blinked again because he was horrified. Nothing that fought its way to his voice was appropriate. He merely stared at her.
She looked at him calmly — he might have been one of the birds she waited to feed. Her lab coat hung away from her. She turned and walked out.
"Wait," Roddy said.
Mary Leibnitz stopped next to a cage of green siskins.
He got off the table, stepped into his shoes, and confronted her. "I don't like this," he said. "Being spied on."
"I'm not spying on you," Mary said. "I went to your office, but you weren't there, so I thought I might find you up here."
"I told you to come to my office."
"I did, but you weren't there. I'm really awfully sorry, but I don't know why you're making such a fuss."
"I'm not making a fuss," Roddy said. "I just don't like being spied on."
"What you mean is that you take secret naps up here and you don't like being caught out. There's nothing wrong with it. I'd sleep up here too. It smells good."
"That's not why. I don't like my privacy invaded."
"Would it interest you to know I've seen you sleeping before?"
"Well, I don't like it. I don't like it at all. What are you doing, snooping around up here?"
Mary put a cool hand on his arm. "Don't shout," she said. "You're overreacting. I've been here a couple of times to talk to Mr. Flores. He's Peruvian, and I used to live in Lima when I was little, so I come up to speak Spanish to him."
"How nice for you."
"No need to be nasty," Mary said. "I really am sorry I woke you up. Goodbye."
"How long were you standing around?"
"You lost ten minutes of privacy," Mary said. "I didn't wake you, because you looked so angelic." She moved as quickly as a cat and was gone before Roddy had collected himself.
On Saturday afternoon, Roddy was going over galleys in his office at the museum. He heard a knock and turned to find Mary Leibnitz standing at the threshold, wearing bluejeans and her lab coat.
"Hello," she said. "Should I go away? I only came by because I wanted to go upstairs and was checking to see if you were here."
"Why did you ask if you should go away?"
"You said you didn't want your privacy invaded. I don't want to people your solitude unless you want it peopled."
"People my solitude," Roddy repeated. She looked very fragile in the doorway. There was a sweetness in her eyes when she looked at him.
"Can I go up and see the finches? I mean, is it all right?" she asked.
Roddy stood looking at Mary for a long time before he spoke. "You're not like other people," he said.
Mary looked at the floor. "Can I go up?"
"I'll go with you," said Roddy, and he took her arm.
She followed him up the spiral staircase. He was tall and rangy and hunched his shoulders. Where his hair waved slightly, it was reddish, but generally it was brown. By a cage of golden finches, Mary studied him. He had round green eyes, with delicate lines around them that made him look tired in an exquisite way. His skin was very fine and his nose was flat. In the light he looked boyish.
"What do you want to see?" he asked.
"I just wanted to be here," Mary said. "I don't think I've ever seen a room I've liked so much."
"There's a lot I can show you," Roddy said.
"I just wanted to be here," Mary said. She smiled, then she stopped. "It never occurred to me. I'm really sorry. I probably took you away from your work, just for an aesthetic thrill. I mean, I didn't want to come up for any scientific reason. I'm really sorry if I took your time."
"It's all right," said Roddy. "At least you like birds."
When they opened the door of his office, Aggie, Bert, Russell, and Gem started from the curtain rod and flew to the bookshelves. Roddy pulled down the blinds.
"I have to get them into their cage. Stand by the switch, and when I tell you, turn the lights off." He stood in the center of the room, waving his arms. The birds left the bookshelves and flew to the corners. "Now!" he shouted.
Mary turned off the lights and heard the sound of wings threshing the air, then beating furiously against the wall.
"O.K.," Roddy said. "Put them on." He had a towel in his hand and from it poked a tiny white-and-yellow head. "It's Aggie," he said. "Come and see."
Mary watched as he put the towel to the cage door and Aggie hopped out to the back of the cage, looking rumpled and frightened. "Can't you catch them any other way?" she asked.
"No. I go through this every afternoon."
"I can't bear to hear them beating against the wall like that," Mary said.
"There isn't any other way. They have to be in their cage at night."
"Won't they fly onto your hand?"
"Not these. They're friendly but not very trusting."
"Mr. Flores seems to pick them out of the air."
"You stick with Flores," Roddy said. "He's a regular Francis of Assisi."
When Gem, Russell, and Bert had been caught, Mary leaned back against the wall. "That's the most unnatural sound I've ever heard," she said.
"No more unnatural than anything else you have to get used to," said Roddy, covering the cage with a blue cloth.
They walked away from the museum past a line of trees. Damp leaves printed the sidewalks.
"I live quite close by," Mary said. "Would you like to come and have coffee?"
"I don't think so," Roddy said. "I've got lots of work to do."
Mary lived in a brownstone with a wide oak door. Her apartment looked over a garden in whose center a cement Cupid with a broken-off right arm was standing in a pool of watery dead leaves. The pictures on the wall were old-fashioned watercolors of flowers. She had a small prayer rug and a Peruvian wall hanging. Her furniture was plain and comfortable. There was an oak desk, an oak table, a gray sofa, and two blue armchairs.
From the window Roddy could see the spires of the museum and the edge of the park. In the corner of the garden grew a catalpa tree, whose dried pods hung like snakeskins amid green emerging buds.
Mary appeared and put a tray of coffee and cups on the table.
"It's bliss here," Roddy said. "How can you like the finch room so much if you have this?"
"I'm glad you decided to come up after all," Mary said. "Come have coffee."
"Wait a minute," Roddy said. He took her by the shoulders and pointed her into the afternoon light. Her eyes were level and serious. Then she grinned and he kissed her.
"Thank you," she said.
"I was hoping you'd kiss me, but I didn't know how I could arrange it. I'm shy."
"You don't seem very shy," said Roddy.
"I am, but not in usual ways," she said. She bent toward the coffeepot, but he caught her arm and kissed her again. They stood at the window with their hands interlocked, and she scanned his face as if she were memorizing it.
"I'm married," he said.
"You shouldn't have kissed me, then."
"I mean, I'm getting a divorce. I'm in the process of it. I'm not telling you that so you'll think I'm available or anything." He let go of her hand and sat down.
"Raiford," Mary said.
"Roddy," said Roddy.
"Roddy. How old are you?"
"You're very silly for thirty-one."
"I don't like this conversation," said Roddy. He drank his coffee and looked out the window. "You have no idea how nice it is here. Why am I silly for thirty-one?"
"Because first of all you kiss me, then you say you're married, then you say you're not married, and then you tell me not to think you're available. How do you know I'm available? How do you know I'm not married?"
Excerpted from "The Collected Stories"
Copyright © 1986 Laurie Colwin.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
- Passion and Affect
- Title Page
- animal behavior
- the elite viewer
- dangerous french mistress
- the water rats
- the girl with the harlequin glasses
- passion and affect
- the man who jumped into the water
- a road in indiana
- the smartest woman in america
- mr. parker
- children, dogs, and desperate men
- the big plum
- The Lone Pilgrim
- Title Page
- The Lone Pilgrim
- The Boyish Lover
- Sentimental Memory
- A Girl Skating
- An Old-Fashioned Story
- Delia’s Father
- A Mythological Subject
- Saint Anthony of the Desert
- The Smile Beneath the Smile
- The Achieve of, the Mastery of the Thing
- Family Happiness
- Another Marvelous Thing
- Title Page
- My Mistress
- Frank and Billy
- French Movie
- A Little Something
- Swan Song
- A Country Wedding
- Another Marvelous Thing
- A Couple of Old Flames
- A Biography of Laurie Colwin