When Laurie Colwin died in 1992, at the age of 48, she left those of us who followed her work with the sense that her best stuff would now never be written. She was never my very favorite writer, but she was good, she was solid, and she had a very specific sensibility. The first book of hers I read, Happy All the Time, was, in fact, about happiness -- and I remember being surprised to discover that happiness could even be the subject of literature, and it didn't have to be cloying. That was a revelation to me, a big Raymond Carver junkie.
But her novel Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object is the one I return to most often as an example of a perfect short novel. It's about a young woman whose husband dies in an accident and how she takes up with her husband's brother. It's absolutely unsentimental, even wry and witty. Colwin never wrote self-consciously or in a style as so many of her 80's contemporaries did (Beattie, Carver, Hempel, Moore), but she had a light touch with characters that was ultimately quite distinctive.
Short novels (Shine On is just short of 200 pages) really are a genre of their own. The novella has never really taken off as a form (quick, name five great novellas!) but posing as real novels, short novels have managed to do something somewhat different. They work more like long short stories, in that their curve is tight -- just larger.
Another writer I first read around the same time as Laurie Colwin is Lynn Sharon Schwartz, who's still writing and recently wrote a 9-11 novel. Her book Rough Strife is one of the best novels about a marriage I've ever read. I wonder if it's possible to write well about a marriage without basing it on one's own...