Anna Quindlen bakes nice quotes.
From across the table at her publisher’s downtown Toronto office, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and novelist serves them up easily, perfectly formed, and places them squarely on the table. Once proffered, she needn’t add a thing. This, after all, is the author of a new memoir entitled Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. Her quotes have just the right amount of fluff and sugar. They’re ideal comfort food. All she needs to do is smile.
“One of the downsides to how we now view motherhood is the illusion of control,” she says. “The idea that somehow children will become what you want them to become. My imagination as a young mother was so limited that if they had become what I thought I wanted them to be, they would be infinitely less interesting than they are.”
It’s not that Ms. Quindlen is prim and proper, a sort of smug housewife of literature, who knows she can fold her verbs and adjectives into sentences better than most. She has a maternal vibe, dressed in a striped shirt, dark skirt and chunky necklace. But she is warm and funny, kind and accessible. She laughs a lot. At almost 60 years, with three adult children and a husband of almost 35 years, there’s a sureness about her, a been-there-done-that calm, all of which she shares with the honesty of a lifelong girlfriend.
And maybe her confidence in her manner of stirring together all the stuff of life – hers and by extension, her generation’s – and making it into something we can all consume and feel good about comes from the fact that it has long been her greatest skill. In the 80’s, her popular New York Times column, Living in the 30’s, chronicled the boomers’ navigation of yuppiedom and the attempt to Have It All. A witness to the changing domestic landscape populated with feminist-informed mothers and women, she recognized that the homefront was political, deeply human and intelligent.
And now, after almost 20 years of devoting her book efforts to fiction – in 1994, she quit her New York Times column to write novels full-time – she has returned to memoir to chronicle the psychological landscape once again. Only this time, it’s Living with Botoxable Wrinkles. (Yes, she got rid of her frown lines because she didn’t want to appear grumpy when she isn’t, she confesses.)
“I felt as though I was bringing some of that ‘Living in the 30’s’ sensibility to this book,” she says. But before you groan over the latest instalment of boomer self-love, know that Ms. Quindlen’s omniscience extends to understanding how her book might be irksome. “I am hugely sympathetic if anybody is so tired of the baby boomers that they want to spit,” she offers with a laugh. “Everytime you turn around, we’re re-defining some life passage.”
The trouble is that some of the territory she explores is well-trodden: the importance of girlfriends; retirement; the nature of a long, happy marriage; the liberation for women that comes when they stop caring what others think of them. That she brings her Quindlen-esque turn of phrase to these verities is delightful – “A small safety net of white lies can be the bedrock of a successful marriage. You wouldn’t beleive how cheaply I can do a kitchen renovation,” she writes. But sometimes it feels as though she has returned too late to the confessional-age party she helped to begin. Do we need to read about another woman coming to terms with her no-longer-young body?
Still, there are some insightful revelations. For the first time, she writes about giving up alcohol about 15 years ago, not because she was an alcoholic but because she was too fond of her wine habit. “Frankly, as someone who has written about her life for years, I almost felt as though I was holding out on the readers about that … I wrote the first draft [of the chapter] and sent it to my agent and she calls me and says, ‘This is the most boring chapter about alcoholism I have every read in my life. You didn’t crash the car. You didn’t disrupt the dinner party. You didn’t get a divorce. You just stopped drinking. I don’t think you need it.’ And I said, ‘This chapter is staying because you all think a drinking problem means throwing up on the Secretary of State or losing your job when in fact for a lot of women, it just means a nagging sense that you drink too much.’ ”
Such Affluent White People problems have caused some to suggest that she’s not so much a mainstream part of her generation as a sub-set of it. “I am writing from the standpoint of a woman who has had a very lucky life,” she acknowledges. “But within that, I’ve really felt the need to make my own luck at some level,” she says, referring to her tendency to “quit more great jobs than most people have ever had.”
Even when it’s Mature Quindlen on Youthful Quindlen, the tone of the comments are as pleasant as a tea-time exchange between lifelong friends. In fact, it’s her lack of bitterness or angst about the way her life has turned out that makes her as warm as a freshly baked apple pie. “Meeting someone really early on gave me an advantage that some of my friends didn’t have,” she says of her long marriage to Gerald Krovatin, a lawyer. “I need a very boring, set-to-music life … My domestic life has given me that [stability] from which to go upstairs every morning and churn out copy.” On raising three children, she says, “All the teachable moments of motherhood were teaching me.” Those lessons were about patience, selflessness, letting go of control and slowing down.
She is exemplary in this way, the sanguine boomer who has successfuly navigated work-life balance, marriage, motherhood, all the things many failed at, and which still confound the next generation.
She’s had her cake and eaten it, too, and she’s happy to share a slice. You can always scrape off some of the icing.