Anna Quindlen’s Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake (Random House, April 2012) is a treat of a memoir. The author examines and shares her experiences, yet each topic is set within a larger context. Quindlen tells us how she sees it, from a position of lived experience, and avoids preaching from the other end of the age spectrum. In fact, she takes on the issue of the very different lives women have in each generation in the section entitled “Generations,” in which she provides a bridge for each of us to consider.
Quindlen’s writing is honest and revealing. While segments are brief, like a blog or short column, each plants seeds of thought so the reader considers a particular chapter after closing the book. We’re not asked to measure our lives to the author’s, or to adopt her viewpoint. Rather, Quindlen seems to ask, “So, what do you think?” The tone is conversational and never patronizing. This is a perfect memoir for a book club or between friends.
Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake is a memoir with appeal for those who have lots of candles on their own cakes, as well as for women embarking on adult lives. While she says she’d be at a loss to say anything that would be meaningful to her twenty-two year old self if given the chance, Quindlen has something to offer young women, who can read her musings on work, career, marriage, friendship, parenthood and personal growth and use them to consider paths and options before them. Because she’s never claiming anything except for herself, the author makes us comfortable whether we’re nodding our heads in agreement or raising an eyebrow about a topic with which we have different thoughts or experience. For women in the same age group as the author, the book provides experiences one might relate to personally or that might help one relate to the struggles and joys of a friend going through a similar circumstance.
Even as women have so much more open to us compared to past generations, we find certain roles almost inevitable. Quindlen gets to the point of the modern conundrum when she describes the situation as thus: “the most liberated generation of women in American history, raised on the notion that they could be much more than caregivers, became caregivers cubed.” While those at middle age or older may resignedly recognize this, young women can take a statement like this and ask “why?” and consider how this situation might be changed. Sure, we’re in the boardroom, yet we’re on our multi-function phones simultaneously coordinating childcare and the health care of aging parents. Men in the boardroom have never done this; their wives handle all of that! In chapters that deal with these topics, Quindlen speaks to and for several generations at once.
Again sharing personal experience within a larger context, Quindlen writes about defining and redefining herself. Her young self loved the “question authority” bumper sticker, and her older self says we might “question who gets to be an authority in the first place.” These gems, presented without sententiousness, speak to women at every age and stage of life. With regard to women’s development, the author’s meta-view is evident when she writes, “the notion of what it means to be a woman, a mother, even a human being has changed so much during our lifetimes.” If we stop reading, and consider this a moment, we grasp the implications of this statement. Woman, as a sex and as a gender, has been deconstructed to singular elements inside the lab as well as within our society and across the globe. How we define mother is vastly different today than it was just thirty years ago. The nature of humans and humanity is discussed on radio talks shows, in magazines and in film. While adopting a wider view, Quindlen’s writing allows us to personalize the question and answer for ourselves, even as we see the larger picture.
Quindlen is sincere and yet does not beg our forgiveness or sympathy when she writes about the responsibility placed on her young self to leave college to care for her father, younger siblings and dying mother. She matter-of-factly admits, “I did not want to be there.” Most people would not want to allow themselves such a thought, never mind share it with others. It is this straight-forwardness that makes Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake an inviting memoir for women no matter how many candles their cakes may require.