Anna Quidlen’s “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake”

Even if you haven’t been taping Anna Quindlen’s “New York Times” and “Newsweek” columns to your fridge for two or three decades, reading Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake will feel a like a cozy chat with an old friend. In this memoir, Quindlen again offers her keen observations of a well-examined, well-lived life. A Pulitzer Prize winning columnist and prolific writer of fiction with six acclaimed novels and seven non-fiction books to her credit, Quindlen, soon to turn sixty, is at the top of her game. Her insight is razor sharp, but her observations are also kind, both to others and herself. From the introduction: “It’s odd when I think of the arc of my life, from child to young woman to aging adult. First I was who I was. Then I didn’t know who I was. Then I invented someone and became her. Then I began to like what I’d invented. And finally I was what I was again.”

The aptly titled Lots of Candles pulses with life and all its lucky breaks, inanities, accomplishments, everyday frustrations, and imponderable questions. Quindlen examines our epidemic accumulation of “stuff” (and getting rid of it); our evolving relationships with adult children (“The older I get, the more I want to be like them.”); a successful marriage (“Frankly, I don’t want a husband who knows what toile is.”); and poignantly, the early death of a parent (“I’m living for two, for all the years, the decades, my mother never got.”). As she considers the narrowing of life’s possibilities in late middle age, Quindlen writes, we must face the fact that “the hand you’ve been dealt is the entire deck.”

The reader is often struck by the feeling that Quindlen has been privy to her journal (and yes, I suspect the vast majority of Quindlen’s readers are women, and women of a “certain age”), so acutely does she home in on the issues that preoccupy her generation. At this point in our lives, she writes, we “stand between two enormous forces. On the one side are the difficult and demanding events to come, the losses, the illness, the deaths. You can see them out on the horizon like a great wave, its whitecaps approaching.” The other force, the “levee that protects us,” is the trust of friends we can call “any time, day or night,” for help.

This is a laugh-out-loud book and never more so than when Quindlen looks at own failings and foibles. On the subject of her decision to stop drinking, she says, “Moderation and I have always had an uneasy relationship.” Her first trip to the “Fountain of Botox” was made not to try to look young again, but merely “less crabby.” Parenting is the “obsessive miasma of free-floating worry.” Also, “There’s a problem with turning motherhood into martyrdom. There’s no way to do it and have a good time.” Often her husband Gerry has the laugh line. On looking around the bedroom at his wife’s exercise equipment — free weights, kettle bells, medicine balls, the Bosu ball — he asks, “Are you making a model of the solar system?”

On feminism, for which she was a generation’s spokesperson and champion, she writes, “I’m part of the generation that said it wanted to change the world, and it did.” At the same time, young women today who want to do things differently are not “ungrateful,” but very likely “sane.”

Despite being organized into four loosely defined parts (from “The Laboratory of Life” to “The Be-All and End-All), the narrative meanders from topic to topic, doubling back to reexamine some, then flowing on. The structure, or lack of it, reinforces the sense that Quindlen knows the reader, that we are familiars sharing intimacies. While far from another “chicken soup” of predictable homilies, this would be a great book to keep by the bedside to savor before sleep.

Shopworn clichés about aging are given a twist: Quindlen has so many pairs of glasses because “they are somehow never where I am.” Also, “. . . having a reliably unreliable memory,” means that we can reread mystery novels without knowing “whodunit.” The reader nods knowingly.

While skillful in nailing the quotidian, Quindlen doesn’t flinch from the big topics: the part religion plays in life, questions of mortality, and “what comes next.” She is clear-eyed when examining her Catholicism: “. . . I may have lost my religion . . . But I’ve never lost, and will never lose my faith.” She confesses that, while she would like to be comforted by it, she no longer believes in heaven, for “there is no better place” than the here and now.

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, renews and restores our zest for life. As Anna Quindlen puts it, “All I can say for sure is that I want more.”

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