The most recent book by novelist and essayist Anna Quindlen — “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake” (Random House) — is about the lessons learned by a smart and funny baby boomer, from the turbulence of youth up to the puzzlement of finding yourself in late middle age.
Instead of being locked into a fake “youthful” posture, like so many of her peers, Quindlen deals with the fact that her 50something self would be a stranger to her 20-year-old version.
Quindlen was a professional navel gazer in The New York Times columns she wrote about navigating her 30s, but her ability to make the specifics of a rather privileged life in the fast lanes of Manhattan media strike a universal chord in readers earned her a Pulitzer Prize.
(Quindlen will be talking about “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake” tonight at the Edgerton Center in Fairfield, but the event sold out last week.)
The writer took the wisdom she gained in column writing and translated it into a series of very successful novels, one of which, “One True Thing,” was turned into a devastating 1998 Meryl Streep movie.
The novels are terrific, but there is something very special about the direct-address version of Quindlen that we get in her non-fiction work. Like the late great Nora Ephron, Quindlen is such a strong writer that she pulls us in close even when we might disagree with what she is saying.
“Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake” is largely about a completely new phase of life for a healthy American person — the decade or so between the “middle age” of one’s 40s and 50s and the no-fooling elderly years of the 70s and 80s (should you be so lucky).
“We’ve added a decade to our body clocks,” Quindlen writes of the expansion of average life expectancy from the late 60s to the late 70s (from the time of the writer’s birth 60 years ago).
“…that time comes not at the end, when things are pretty much what they always were — physical degeneration, systematic loss, more of a look back than a look ahead; it comes now in the years between sixty and seventy, years that feel like an encore instead of a coda.”
People in these “coda” years, Quindlen explains, have experienced loss — of friends and family, sexual energy, the notion of a bright, ever-expanding future — but they can also be free of one of the most anxious aspects of youth, that desperate caring about other people’s opinions of you.
Through an interlocking series of essays about family, aging, mortality, and a host of other topics, Quindlen offers reassurance and honesty and her own lessons learned, but little advice.
The writer lets us know some of what has happened to her over six decades in a warmly personal style, but allows us the freedom to reach our conclusions about what she writes. It’s not a disdainful take it or leave it attitude, but a take it and use it if you would like philosophy that is very appealing.