Now that the tie-dyed generation is getting into designer bifocals and vibrating heat-massage lounge chairs, Laurie Colwin has come along to comfort us all with the novelized version of ’60s nostalgia. Except that Goodbye Without Leaving ends up being less a sentimental celebration of that old time rock & roll than an apologia for her heroine’s grudging but heartwarming return to the enduring values she’d so impulsively left behind. Sweet 16 has turned 30something and it’s good-bye rhythm & blues and hello dinner parties with hubby’s law partnerr, weekends in the Connecticut suburbs with the doting grandparents, self-imposed Hebrew lessons, and Montessori preschool fund-raisers.
The novel’s heroine, Geraldine Coleshares, you see, did more to antagonize her ”relentlessly assimilated” Jewish parents than simply bringing home Little Richard albums. ”Ethnic identity,” she tells us, ”was slightly vulgar in my mother’s eyes.” Her mother was a portrait painter whose idea of art was paintings of ”long-legged little girls wearing black or white stockings, hair ribbons and white pinafores.” If her mother wants to bluff being a WASP, Geraldine decides to raise the ante: She drops out of a University of Chicago Ph.D. program to hit the road for two and a half years as a backup singer with Vernon and Ruby Shakely and the Shakettes — an otherwise black group not unlike Ike and Tina Turner. ”The kind of ecstasy people found in religion I found in being a Shakette,” she reports. ”It was not an out-of-body experience, it was an in-body experience.”
Supposedly all this primal soul-searching takes place during the late ’60s — a period of some turmoil in American life, older readers may recall. As ”the white Shakette,” Geraldine, unfortunately, remains pure vanilla throughout. For all the impact it made upon her, she might as well have been touring with Pat Boone. Partly the girl’s far too self-absorbed to notice anything around her. ”I’m nothing,” she tells saxophonist Doo-Wah Banks in a futile attempt at seduction. ”I’m a lapsed Jew from an assimilated family. I don’t belong anywhere. I’m alone in the middle of the universe.” No wonder he turns her down. By the time her future husband catches the show at the Apollo Theater and pursues her up and down the East Coast, we’re expected to believe that Geraldine — despite smoking up bales of reefer in the back of the bus — hasn’t so much as kissed a man in years.
Establishment lawyer by day, stone rock & roller by night, this ”Boy Scout from Mars” turns out to be the perfect husband, adept at mediating between Geraldine and her mother. So before you know it, Geraldine’s pregnant, working at a clerical job in Harlem cataloguing female blues singers from the ’30s, and she and the Boy Scout are exchanging humorous banter like this: ”For a guy who likes rock & roll…you sure are funny about spades.”
”’I love spades,’ Johnny said. ‘I just don’t like my woman hanging around spade-infested areas in the late afternoon.”’
Not one sentence in this lightweight concoction will persuade readers that Laurie Colwin knows anything more about the world she purports to describe than the titles of a few old songs. Anyhow it’s all just a phase Geraldine went through on her way to becoming the kind of consumer mom who frets over her little boy’s test scores while he’s still in the womb. Though competently executed, Goodbye Without Leaving trivializes everything it touches: the music, the musicians, and even the heartwarming domestic traditionalism it means to endorse.