Maybe it’s because of her recent passing, but I couldn’t help but think of Nora Ephron and her last compilation of essays, I Remember Nothing, as I read Anna Quindlen’s new memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. Their similar backgrounds as successful journalists may have something to do with it; certainly the perspicacity so characteristic of these two brilliant women plays an even bigger part. Probably, though, I recalled Ephron’s wistful “The O Word” from her final book—”O” standing for “old” —and its sentiments hovered as I pondered Quindlen’s counterpart exploration of the inexorable journey towards the sunset of life.
But I should hasten to add that Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake is anything but wistful. Quindlen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and novelist, who’s been called America’s “laureate of real life,” infuses her recollections as a baby-boomer facing late middle age with relentless optimism—and humor. Whether she’s discussing marriage, raising children, or lessons learned as a beneficiary of the societal transformations brought about by the upheavals of the ’60s and ’70s, particularly as they pertained to the role of women, her razor-sharp perceptions harbor the wisdom of a participant who lived the changes uniquely first-hand.
Motherhood is one theme that she revisits from a post-feminism vantage point. In the chapter, “Generations,” she talks about “my place in the succession of women who came before me,” including of course, her own mother, whom she describes as “a housewife, a rather reserved person with a sweet nature and a powerful ability to control her children through the simple exigency of spontaneous and utterly sincere tears.” In terms of her sacrifices, and in retrospective appreciation, the daughter recognizes that, among other considerations, “the closest thing my mother had to a windup baby bouncer was her arm and hip.”
As a mother of three, and married to the same partner for 34 years (“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’s balancing act of professional and domestic life comprises a large portion her thoughts, and leads to some poignant conclusions. Assessing her relationship with her now-grown and “utterly female and terribly confident” daughter, she says,“You realize that instead of your being her role model, the tables have turned.”
In another parallel with Ephron (whose penultimate book was titled I Feel Bad About My Neck), Quindlen, now 60, addresses the vagaries of the aging process in the entry titled “Mirror, Mirror,” as she talks about “that moment when someone at a bar or liquor store cards you—because it’s their policy to card everyone—and your heart soars,” or beginning her “annual pilgrimage to the Fountain of Botox, later supplemented with one to the Shrine of Facial Fillers.” But it’s a process the writer is very much at peace with: “I wouldn’t be twenty-five again on a bet, or even forty.” More simply, she sums it up with, “I just like this time better.”
Other highlights: “Faith,” about ambivalent feelings towards her Catholic upbringing (“’I’ve thought about my faith so often as I’ve grown older, and I admit that I’m not certain what I really believe about any of it anymore”); and “Mortality,” an inevitable contemplation of what may lie at the end of the journey.
Ultimately, the heart of the book is perhaps best summarized in that famous lyric from rock poet (and boomer hero) Bob Dylan: “But I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.” It’s no surprise that this totally engaging and savvily self-aware volume would conclude with a chapter called, “To Be Continued.”
Bring on more candles.