As a former columnist for the New York Times, Anna Quindlen has lifetime VIP status among a certain demographic, regardless of the newspaper’s own struggles to stay afloat. Once, not that long ago, a daily copy of the Times was as essential as electricity to a liberal, affluent home. But now we’re in a Facebook/Twitter/HuffPo world, where cultural authority comes from everywhere, and thus nowhere. Where does that leave Anna Quindlen? Her particular voice—moderate, measured, maternal, personal but not confessional—gained its traction in a culture that now is changing so fast, even she must struggle to find stable ground to plant a book in. Her latest, her 10th book of nonfiction, is a memoir about getting older that tries hard to focus on the upside. As they enter their 60s she and her generational cohort, she reports, find themselves “exhilarated, galvanized.”
The book is called Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, and despite its title it can’t seem to help striking deep chords of loss. Quindlen seems to have lost the confident pop in her voice, the instinctive feel for that adoring audience. So much of what formed her is fading and fracturing—not just the newspaper business but her ethnic Catholic milieu, too, the Irish and Italian mashup that shaped her sensibility, and that once occupied such a proud place in the culture.
If Quindlen seems out of touch, it’s partly that as a quintessential Baby Boomer, she’s been both blessed and cursed to have spent her prime years worrying about work-life balance and empty-nest syndrome, instead of about, say, total financial devastation. There is a bizarre chapter called “Stuff,” in which she enumerates all the things she has accumulated in her two homes—the brownstone in Manhattan and the country place in Pennsylvania: the samplers, the pottery, the four or five enamel colanders, all the way to the closet containing “eighteen pairs of black pants and eleven pairs of black pumps.” Finally she announces that “at a certain point … I realized that I don’t give a damn about any of it.” Is she going to give away some of her hoard to the less fortunate, maybe commit from here on in to practicing radical sustainability? Well, no. She just realizes that she could live without it all. In theory. The chapter, and the book as a whole, will no doubt strike even many of her most devoted, Times-worshiping readers as tone-deaf, given the current economic crisis, with its widespread unemployment and decimated middle class. Beginning with that title! (Let them eat plenty of cake?)
Back in 1999, when Quindlen was still writing her Times column, the critic Lee Siegel attacked her in the New Republic, coining the phrase “the Quindlen effect” for what he called her borrowing of others’ pain in order to circle back to talking about her own life: “In her hands,” he wrote, “the immediate preoccupations of the American self subjugate and domesticate and assimilate every distant tragedy.” But in this book, that self is so well-buttressed that no distant tragedy—not even the many nearby tragedies of the current American moment—seems capable of stoking her outrage, or even catching her interest.
And yet to read Quindlen now is to come face to face with a loss perhaps even sadder than the extinguishing of the middle-class dream that we will all, some day, have two homes full of stuff. It’s the way her voice comes out of her particular ethnic niche — one that is transforming into something else, just as certainly as the Times is moving to the cloud. Quindlen’s half-Irish, half-Italian pedigree is a combination that speaks to one of the strangest twinnings of seemingly incompatible cultures in the history of the world, the Irish and Italian immigrants who were, in 20th-century America, thrown into close quarters by their shared Roman Catholicism. Reading her in the New York Times years, or later during her stint at Newsweek, you could dismiss her sentimentality and self-referentiality, as Siegel did, but you also recognized her link to a tradition, a cultural scene that had its own richness and mystery.
You can see the Irish in Quindlen’s ability to let the words tumble out on just about any subject, to say one thing and then a few sentences later seem to suggest its exact opposite, pulling it all together in smoothly flowing generalities tinged with lovely little images, occasionally throwing in a heart-stopping moment of clarity. It’s what some of us might call, not without affection, “blarney.” Certain corners of literary culture would wither and die without it.