Pulitzer Prize winner and best-selling author Anna Quindlen is grateful for all the candles on her birthday cake. In this short, breezy memoir, she looks back over the past six decades of her life and reflects upon the many hats she has worn among them, caregiver, journalist, novelist, wife and mother. Easily read in one or two sittings, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake is a series of short essays, similar to the Newsweek and New York Times columns collected in Loud and Clear.
Quindlen begins by talking about the things she would tell her 22-year-old self about life. Torn between several responses, she concludes that “the young woman I once was cannot hear me, not just because of time and space, but because of the language, and the lessons, she has yet to learn.” Later in the book, her tone becomes wistful as she talks about the younger women who come to her for advice. While she can see herself mirrored in their eyes, Quindlen finds it difficult to tell them “that there is no formula, there is no plan” and “it is the surprises that define us, the paths we didn’t see coming and may have wandered down by mistake.
As a fifty something woman, I could easily relate to her observations about the aging process. Quindlen has a positive perspective and her sense of humour comes through in many of her comments, especially those pertaining to appearance. “Perhaps part of the reason I’ve been relatively sanguine about aging is because my face was never my fortune, and it was never really young.” And her thoughts about plastic surgery: “A lot of plastic surgery is like spray tan. It doesn’t look like a real tan at all. It looks like a tan in an alternate universe in which everyone is orange.”
Quindlen is not afraid to take on new challenges at this stage of her life. In one chapter, she describes how she conquered a headstand. At first, she didn’t think it was physically possible, but she built up her strength and finally flipped her body into a complete headstand. I reread this section several times wondering about my own “headstand.” What am I afraid to accomplish or conquer?
Outspoken and never afraid to speak her mind, Quindlen shares why she is no longer a practicing Catholic. Disillusioned by recent scandals, she felt that her “very presence in the pew suggested that she was willing to overlook the priests who had been shuffled from parish to parish, fondling children and teenagers as they went.” She also admits that she is no longer certain what she believes and wonders if any of it matters.
The most moving chapter is the one devoted to her mother’s death. Quindlen was just nineteen when her mother died of cancer at age 42. Asked to give up a year of college and take over the care of her mother and the household. Quindlen makes it clear that she was not the “little heroine of this story.” She felt powerless and trapped and feared succumbing to a life defined by “Joy of Cooking, Jacqueline Susann and slipcovers.”
I was struck by her mother’s comment, “Now you’ll have something to write about.” Years later, Quindlen based her novel, One True Thing, on this period of her life.
Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake ended too quickly for me, but I was reassured by Anna Quindlen’s final comment: To be continued.