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Author Elin Hilderbrand on why 'Family Happiness' is her favorite book

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

If you are a regular listener of this program - and I obviously hope you are - you know we talk to all kinds of writers about their books. Today, we are doing something a little different. We are talking to a writer, one of my favorite writers, as it happens - not about her work, though, but about her favorite book by another author. The writer is Elin Hilderbrand. You might recognize her as the force behind nearly 30 novels, often set and definitely best read on a beach.

Elin Hilderbrand, welcome.

ELIN HILDERBRAND: Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So the idea - just to pull the curtain back a little, the idea here is we get to call some of the authors who bring us great pleasure and ask what book you turn to for pleasure or for enlightenment. So what have you got for us?

HILDERBRAND: So my favorite book of all time is "Family Happiness" by Laurie Colwin.

KELLY: And I know from following you on Instagram that you read prolifically, so to call this your favorite book of all time is saying something.

HILDERBRAND: Absolutely. It is sheer perfection, and we can talk all about it.

KELLY: I'll - I want to hear all about it. It was published in 1982. I have not read it. Give us a brief plot summary.

HILDERBRAND: "Family Happiness" is - it's about a woman named Polly Demarest, and she's embedded in an old New York family, Upper West Side. She has an older brother and a younger brother. She has a real - fabulous parents. The mother - very strong mother, Wendy. They have all of these traditions in her family. She's got two small children. Her husband's an attorney. And we find out that Polly is actually conducting a love affair with a man named Lincoln who is a famous painter down in SoHo.

And the novel is about her life and her family, which all seems perfect from the outside. But we, as the reader, know that, in fact, she is tormented. She is torn into. She references "Anna Karenina." I mean, she really feels like a heroine of literary proportion as she conducts this love affair.

KELLY: And what was it about Polly's story that spoke to you, that makes it your favorite book of all time?

HILDERBRAND: The thing that Laurie Colwin does is she makes the moral ambiguity of the story because Polly is such a likable character. She is the most sort of charming. You know, she's always running out for baguettes for her mother. She's a do-gooder. She's in service to her children, her mother, her husband, her job. And yet she has - is managing somehow to capture - you know, to live her own life. So her affair with Lincoln, rather than being cast as something, you know, wrong or negative is something that really fulfills her and gives her - makes her feel like she's her own person.

And the way the moral ambiguity is handled is so brilliant. I can remember the first time I read it. I was so torn because obviously you don't want her to leave her husband, but you also don't want her to leave her lover. And for a person with a regular moral compass, for her to be able to pull this off is so amazing.

KELLY: You said the first time you read this. How many times have you read it?

HILDERBRAND: So I've read it three times.

KELLY: OK.

HILDERBRAND: I will say there is a way in which every time I sit down to write a book, Mary Louise, I'm trying to write this book just in its specificity and its clarity. It's - the writing is engaging. She's wonderful with food. She's written two nonfiction novels called "Home Cooking" and "More Home Cooking." And I write a lot about food in my novels as well. And - but the way that she writes about food and the particulars are so enchanting. And you just - you know, you feel like you're there or you want to be there. It's really - it's, like, aspirational, like, before that was even a thing.

KELLY: That's so interesting that you say you feel like you're - every time you sit down to write a book, you're trying to write this book. 'Cause I always wonder, when someone like you reads a book that just resonates, are you able to read it purely for pleasure or is the professional wordsmith in your head always thinking, OK, how'd she do that? How could I attempt to do that?

HILDERBRAND: Yeah. I mean, yes. You're always - every - I always read for instructions. I always say I read above myself. So I always read very literary fiction because I feel like the only way you can become a better writer is to read. And this book in particular, I go back to it again and again.

Before I wrote my novel "The Matchmaker" in 2013, I read it through - straight through 'cause that - in that novel, my character has a husband and a lover, and it's very - and I wanted to read this first 'cause I want to recreate the feeling that you get in this book where you know it's wrong, but you're with the main character whatever she decides.

KELLY: So if I had to - if you had to point to one thing you have learned about writing from Laurie Colwin, what would you tell me?

HILDERBRAND: Well, in her book "More Home Cooking," she says, what is more interesting than how people live? And I echo that myself. What is more interesting than how people live? My novels are set at the beach, or they're known as beach books. But I am extremely interested in the specifics of how my characters live and not so much what they wear or what cars they drive, but, you know, their emotions and how they deal with people and what they eat and how they prepare and how they express love. Like, all of those things, but, like, the very specific details about characters that leap off the page in Colwin's book, that is what I try to recreate in my fiction.

KELLY: I mentioned this book was published in 1982. And I wonder, does it hold up? You know, the idea that a woman's interior life is a worthy subject to carry a whole novel, there was a moment when that was revolutionary. That's what you do in your books, too. Do you think it holds up?

HILDERBRAND: I do. I mean, I think - I would love with this interview to start a Colwin renaissance because this book is such a masterpiece, and it does hold up. You know, I was looking at it, obviously, before we spoke to sort of refresh my memory. And I get sucked in every page. Now, is it inclusive and diverse like it should - you know, we all like our fiction to be in 2022? No, not really. So I feel like if Laurie Colwin was going to rewrite it, she would probably be like, oh, you know what? We could make this novel a little bit more inclusive.

KELLY: Like, maybe not everyone needs to live in a penthouse apartment on the Upper East Side.

HILDERBRAND: (Laughter) Right.

KELLY: Right.

HILDERBRAND: Or down in a fabulous, you know, loft in SoHo - and some characters of color. But aside from that, it is still captivating. And there are no cellphones in it. And it doesn't matter because you're so intrigued with just the personal drama.

KELLY: That is the writer Elin Hilderbrand, a superfan, as you heard, of "Family Happiness" by Laurie Colwin. She's the author of so many engaging novels herself, including, most recently, "The Hotel Nantucket." Elin Hilderbrand, thank you. This was so fun.

HILDERBRAND: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elena Burnett
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.