Before mommy blogs and the now ubiquitous parenting columns about the life-work balance, there was "Life in the Thirties," Anna Quindlen's must-read New York Times column weighing in on everything from baby gear and baby sitters to flannel nightgowns and abortion. When Quindlen left newspaper journalism (and her Pulitzer Prize-winning "Public and Private" op-ed column, which succeeded "Life in the Thirties") to become a full-time novelist in 1995, many of her readers felt as if a close friend had suddenly stopped calling.
Now, six best-selling novels and several somewhat platitudinous but wildly popular advice books later, Quindlen has dialed our number again. Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake serves up generous portions of her wise, commonsensical, irresistibly quotable take on life in the 50s — and beyond. And here's the icing: Her view of late middle age is so enthusiastic, some might accuse her of flirting with smugness.
Why is Quindlen so appealing? What Nora Ephron does for body image and Anne Lamott for spiritual neuroses, Quindlen achieves on the home front. The reassuring message these conversational, self-deprecatingly funny writers convey is: Relax. If you think you've got problems, you are definitely not alone.
Writing about being overwhelmed by material belongings, Quindlen opens, "I have lots of stuff. I bet you do, too." She puts readers at ease about their own perhaps less than perfect relationships by confiding about her own long marriage: "I was never one of those women who tell you that their spouse is their best friend, that they're always on the same page. I feel like you're ahead of the game if you're even in the same book."
Quindlen has more than just the gift of gab. She knows that the personal is ultimately political, and vice versa. Her experience as a reporter trained her to zoom in on the telling detail. Years of writing to precise word counts has led to muscular prose that is economical, elegantly honed and supported by weight-bearing metaphors. Girlfriends, she notes, are "the joists that hold up the house of our existence." Our lives, too, are compared to a construction project, built "bit by bit of small bricks, until by the end there's a long stretch of masonry. But one of the amazing, and frightening, things about growing older, about seeing yourself surrounded by the Great Wall of Life, is that you become aware of how random the construction is."
Quindlen's main subject has always been motherhood — to which she now brings the benefit of hindsight. But don't expect any tears shed for the passing of youth. Quindlen stresses the confidence and contentment of women in what she calls the "encore" years, "freed from societal expectations and roles." She writes, "I wouldn't be 25 again on a bet, or even 40."
Successful, healthy, with a good marriage, three terrific grown kids and two empty nests — why shouldn't Quindlen exult, you may ask. Still, you'd have to be a curmudgeon to begrudge her any of it. Looking back at the "scut work" of "endless diaper changes, baths, books, Band-Aids, doctor visits," she marvels movingly at the results: "It's as though we were working long repetitive shifts on an assembly line, and in the end we had the Sistine Chapel." Oh, how we can relate. Can't wait to read her on grandparenting when she gets there.