Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, by Anna Quindlen

Although it is subtitled A Memoir, I would describe Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake as a collection of essays in which author Anna Quindlen reflects on aging and what it means for women when their roles in family life and the professional world are both changing--all while both ourselves and our parents are living much longer. Certainly Quindlen's reflections are shaped by her own life experiences--as the mother of three, the daughter of a woman who died young, a woman in the newsroom when newsrooms were male bastions equipped with typewriters and copy boys--so in that sense the essays do have a "memoiristic" quality, if that's a word.

Among the topics that Quindlen writes about are:

  • How people feel about "Stuff" and the accumulation of stuff as they age (stuff is less important than it used to be). 
  • Girlfriends (they're critical).
  • Wondering about the person you might have been had you made different decisions along the way (Quindlen likely would have been a bad mother if she hadn't stopped drinking).
  • Why being alone is better when you're older ("Solitude is an acceptable form of selfishness"). 
  • Coming to terms with changes in your looks and your health as you age (not so bad--but maybe it will get worse later). 
  • Accepting that your children are adults (hard--but worthwhile when you see what good people they've become).
In the Introduction to the book, Quindlen notes that one of the great things about writing her column "Life in the 30s" was that women often wrote to her saying they they felt better knowing they were not alone. That is perhaps both a strength and weakness of Quindlen's work as an essayist. Women readers do see themselves in her work--we understand what it's like to realize our children are now grown-ups, to deal with the death of a parent or friends. But perhaps if she were less like us she might challenge us more. Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake is an enjoyable read, but it didn't push me to think harder about what aging means. 

Favorite passages:
That's the kind of compliment you don't even recognize as a compliment after a couple of decades together unless you take the time to hold it up to the light and let the sun shine through it.

Piety has always found its most comfortable home in America amid newer immigrants, who welcome the shape devotion gives to an uncertain existence and the solace the spiritual provides in times of dislocation and want. But the more people are educated, the more they are skeptical; the more they are prosperous, the less likely they are to slavishly adhere to the faith of their fathers. 

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