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.
Italian-Americans, on the other hand, have not been a prolifically literary lot. Law, politics, and business have been a more common destination for the Italian-American sensibility. But in Quindlen’s orientation to the world, you can see distinct strains of Italian-American culture. Her strong family feeling—the obvious pleasure she takes in her three children, to whom she refers constantly—can feel Italian in its fierceness. I lost count of the mentions in this book of her plans for her as-yet-unborn grandchildren. (No pressure, kids!) That need to accumulate—both future grandchildren and, of course, stuff—seems to come from deep in the DNA of a people who, facing grinding poverty, immigrated with few belongings to a country where they did not speak the language. In that chapter on her stuff, Quindlen strikes a lone poignant note when she mentions bursting into tears after dropping her Italian-American mother’s precious Royal Doulton figurine. “She had so few nice things,” she writes.
“We’re part of a mixed marriage,” Quindlen says of her husband: “he’s male, I’m female.” She may not recognize the old Catskills joke, but the message is obvious—she’s all for workplace equality, of course, but otherwise she lives comfortably in a gender-segregated world, in the classic Italian-American tradition. At one point she reveals that she spends the summer in their country house alone, while her husband visits on weekends. I have a distinct childhood memory of rooms full of Italian-American women who talked constantly but rarely even mentioned the name of a man. I mean that literally: “Is he home?” they would ask about someone’s husband, with a mild tone of annoyance. These women were each other’s audience. They cared about fashion, but not to impress or even necessarily to attract men. Many of them were dressmakers and designers, and fashion was self-expression directed mainly at a closed circle of women—much like Quindlen’s writing is.
These days we don’t see much of those women. Instead we see Mob Wives, a world in which Italian-American women circle around men, defined by them and trying frantically to catch their attention with breast implants and pole-dancing classes. It’s weird not just because of course the actual number of Italian-Americans in the mob is miniscule, but also because Italian-American women used to gain power by not actually caring much about men.
But for me, the most striking change is one Quindlen herself acknowledges, and which she writes about with a clear eye—the mass abandonment of the Catholic Church by her generation of liberals, Italians, and Irish alike. (It seems almost fantastical that, say, Newt Gingrich can now wear the mantle of “Catholic writer,” but someone like Anna Quindlen does not any longer.) Being Catholic is “woven into the fabric of my self,” she says, but she no longer goes to Mass, and her children were not even confirmed. She suggests, in another of those tone-deaf moments, that this is partly the result of her wealth and success: “Piety has always found its most comfortable home in America amid newer immigrants,” as an antidote to “dislocation and want.” “The more they are prosperous, the less likely they are to slavishly adhere to the faith of their fathers. In this way our family is a reflection of many others.”
But it’s the Church’s conservative turn, its handling of the sexual abuse scandals, along with the “theological gynecology” of the hierarchy’s obsession with contraception and abortion, that were the final straws for her, as for many others. But now what? As it turns out, her fellow aging ethnic Catholics Maureen Dowd and Frank Bruni, who currently write on the Times Op-Ed page, regularly rail against what the Church has become. Quindlen seems less troubled, writing instead about the family traditions that are her substitute for organized religion now, like reading A Christmas Carol aloud with her husband and kids every year. This seems on the one hand warm and cozy, and on the other lonely and claustrophobic. Isn’t the point of religion to connect to some bigger community, beyond one’s own family?
By all indications, Quindlen has her finger to the wind on this, at least—her family is indeed a reflection of many others. I’m not sure how much there is to celebrate, though. On the evidence of this book, the fade-out of the old ethnic Catholic culture has left us with a strain so smoothed out, it insists that rough edges don’t even exist. It’s serene, but bland and watery. All that pain and suffering, all that striving and yearning, turns into words on a sampler, or slips through the holes in your four (or five) enamel colanders.
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