Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake: A Memoir, by Anna Quindlen (Random House, 208 pp., $26)
A memoir, while not hemmed in by the strict classical rules that define poetry, nonetheless needs a certain amount of control to give it narrative thrust, a modicum of suspense, and something resembling an orderly timeline. Do not expect such leisurely, reflective writing from Anna Quindlen. She was born at the perfect statistical moment to experience firsthand the death by a thousand choices inflicted on American women by the feminist movement, and her memoir is a scattershot overview of every conflict, emotion, experience, wish, regret, and opinion she has ever had from her birth in 1952 to her publisher’s deadline for this manuscript.
The consummate child of her times, Quindlen went along to get along, and she has gotten along quite well. The prototypical Having-It-All feminist as well as the Ur-Boomer, she made an ideal culture-watcher for the New York Times, churning out op-eds packed with de rigueur “relevance” and a column called “Life in the Thirties” that delivered bottomless empathy to beleaguered career women who, like Quindlen, had their children later in life and got caught up in the guilty conflicts of what she calls “manic motherhood.” Her commentary won her the prestigious empathy chair at the women’s college of hard knocks and led to a Pulitzer Prize.
The daughter of an Italian-American mother and Irish-American father, Quindlen, the oldest of five children, realized early on that something wonderful would inevitably be taken from her: the brownie bowl that she was allowed to lick when her mother baked. At first she had it all to herself, but then came those times when her mother went to the hospital and returned a week later with a red-faced, wailing baby. As the younger children came along, they got first dibs on the icing bowl, and Anna morphed into an assistant mother who was expected to help care for them.
“Where she was always felt like a safe place,” she says of her mother, but her love collided with the contempt for housewives she imbibed as a teen in the early feminist years. She came to look down on her mother’s generation of women and vowed to be what the feminists were calling “a person in her own right.” But then, when she was 19, her mother was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer and her father ordered her to quit college and come home to care for her and run the household for himself and the younger children.
She reacted bitterly, blaming “the tradition of Irish-Catholic households to sacrifice their daughters. . . . I felt powerless, trapped, enfeebled. . . . I was afraid of the briars of housewifery . . . taking away Doris Lessing and Simone de Beauvoir and leaving me with The Joy of Cooking, Jacqueline Susann, and slipcovers.” She was horrified to learn that her mother, who was only 40, had consulted the doctor in the first place because she assumed that her ovarian symptoms meant that she was pregnant. But the baby turned out to be a cancer, and as the inoperable lump grew bigger, the only clothes that would fit her were her old maternity dresses. “A woman who had spent the best years of her life in maternity clothes, she sickened and died in them as well.”
By the time her purgatory as woman of the house was up, Quindlen had had it with conformity, whether to Irish-Catholic traditions, Italian-Catholic traditions, or the traditions governing the hierarchy of baking-bowl licking. While still in her early twenties she asked a doctor to tie her tubes so she would never have children. But he refused, and so she wound up having them in her early thirties when it was the Boomer feminist thing to do.
This is a powerful story, or would be if Quindlen had told it all in one place instead of here and there throughout the book. She seems torn between the need to tell it and a reluctance to call our undivided attention to it. It would take a sturdy raft to navigate her turbulent conflicts, but here and there one comes across hints that the “cake” in her title refers not to the centerpiece of her 60th-birthday party this year, but to all those baking bowls of yore that she never got to lick.
She blames children for women’s loneliness, which she calls the “girlfriend interregnum” — the years when busy mothers have no real friends except other busy mothers they just happen to be thrown together with — and makes a case for “someone not obliged by blood or marriage to support, advise, and love you.” Such unequivocal revelations are not her style, however. She tends to make her unintentional points by protesting too much, as when, even today, “my head swivels when a little voice cries ‘Mommy!’ in a crowded supermarket.”
She also falls into the trap of unintentional humor: “I built my entire existence around my children, wrote only during school hours, didn’t write at all when there was a school vacation or an ear infection,” yet even now, years later, when the clock moves close to 3 p.m., she claims she experiences “a spasm of loneliness.” If this is supposed to tug at our heartstrings, it does. It reminds me of Lassie, ears pricking up as her primitive instinct tells her that it’s time to go wait in the schoolyard.
This is one of the hardest books to review that has ever crossed my desk. It’s divided into topical chapters, but they mean nothing because everything is all over the place, and mostly comes down to Quindlen talking about herself and what it means to be a Boomer. “My muscles are tight but my skin is loose. I am physically fit but forever infertile. My hair is still thick, but much of it is gray.” And her dimples, “once tiny divots, are now deep furrows.” But not to worry, because Boomers are going to be the generation that changed what it means to be an old lady, just as they changed what it means to be a lady. Proof? Her own daughter, raised in the Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton era, asked her, “Can a man be secretary of state?”
Quindlen never walks, she “powerwalks,” and she attempts to write the same way, by fashioning sentences that scream “Quote Me!”: The women’s movement was “the Industrial Revolution without sweatshops.” “One of the useful things about age is realizing that conventional wisdom is often simply inertia with a candy coating of conformity.” “And we do have to make our peace with diminished expectations, bit by bit, the road not taken, the role not filled.” Her fierce objection to the cliché that a person who dies “is in a better place” inspires her defense of the here and now, where clouds are always “scudding” and waves become “swells.”
The only good part of this book is near the end when, after scrupulously denying that she is defending the Catholic Church, she does just that. “For me, being Catholic is like being Irish or Italian or Caucasian, not a faith but an immutable, identifying characteristic with which I was born and with which I will die.” Then, after announcing that she has always used contraception, she continues: “[Catholicism] is woven into the fabric of my self, in both the warp and woof, so that it seems if you pulled its threads, all the rest would unravel.”
If a stranger were to stop her on the street and say, “The Lord be with you,” she says, she would automatically reply “And with your spirit,” or preferably, “Et cum spiritu tuo, the Latin of the Church of my childhood.” She follows this with a firm denial that she is a language traditionalist opposed to making rituals understandable to the masses, then launches a vigorous attack on the tin-eared translators who changed no room at the inn to no room at the place where travelers lodged. “I cringed,” she writes. “It sounded as though the Holy Family got shut out of a cut-rate motel.”
She goes on in this vein, condemning the Church for harboring pedophiles and putting down women, then following her condemnations with sentiments that come very close to a defense of transubstantiation and the Virgin Birth. “Our grandparents were devout, our parents observant, and we are haphazard,” she says wistfully. “Atheism is a game for younger people, who are so sure of what they’re sure of.”
This whole tiresome, egocentric book is about Anna Quindlen doing battle. First she got her feminist up, then she got her Boomer up, but she finally got her Irish up, and it made me like her at last.
– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.