Anna Quindlen can do one-arm push-ups.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning former columnist for the New York Times and Newsweek shares this and other anecdotes from her life in a new collection of essays, “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake.” She also can do headstands. It took her two years to learn how. Please ask for demonstrations.
The image I’m left with is of 58-year-old Quindlen, perhaps in elegant black, pulling a Jack Palance at every stop on her book tour.
Quindlen could easily replace Jamie Lee Curtis as an Activia spokeswoman with her robust good health and enthusiasm for the silver years. “I wouldn’t be 25 again on a bet, or even 40,” she says after quoting from the Carly Simon song “Anticipation”: “ ‘These are the good old days.’ Lots of candles, plenty of cake.”
What the book doesn’t quite acknowledge is that the past five years have eaten up a lot of people’s dessert. Many Americans are trying to get by on a few crumbs and a stray smear of frosting.
Quindlen, who built her writing career around her three children, talks about the irony that “the most liberated generation of women in American history, raised on the notion that they could be much more than caregivers, became caregivers cubed.” She hasn’t had to deal with the Ziplocked feeling that comes from the “sandwich effect” of dealing with aging parents and barely fledged children. But, as long-time readers know, Quindlen was 19 when her mother became ill, and her father expected her to come home from college and take care of her.
Today, the best-selling author and her lawyer-husband, Gerry Krovatin, have their health and enough money to support two homes, and none of their adult children is residing in either of the parents’ basements. However, a gentle hint: As soon as you’ve bought a second house in the country, you need to stop thinking of yourself as middle-class. Also, Quindlen is too good a writer to be falling back on cliches and old sampler sayings like: “Work like you don’t need the money. Love like you’ve never been hurt. Dance like no one’s looking.”
Where “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake” succeeds is in Quindlen’s warm yet pithy discussions about feminism, aging, the uselessness of stuff and the importance of girlfriends — “the joists that hold up the house of our existence.” Quindlen celebrates the fact that her former newspaper is now run by a woman, but also notes that, in all the speeches she’s given on college campuses, not one young man has ever asked her how to balance work and family.
Because her mother died at 40, Quindlen regards aging as a “privilege,” not an insult. While most modern middle-aged women have no idea how they’re supposed to look, she writes: “I’ve finally recognized my body for what it is: a personality delivery system, designed expressly to carry my character from place to place, now and in the years to come. It’s like a car, and while I like a red convertible or even a Bentley as well as the next person, what I really need are four tires and an engine.”
While she breezily dismisses the future — “What comes next? Who knows?” — Quindlen has a strategy for aging that involves not so much assisted living as mutually assisted living: “My plan is that a group of us will move together into our house in the country, with a crackerjack cook and a couple of aides.” In the meantime, she’s working on those one-arm push-ups.
Zipp regularly reviews books for The Post and the Christian Science Monitor.
LOTS OF CANDLES, PLENTY OF CAKE
By Anna Quindlen
Random House. 182 pp. $26