For most of her nearly 60 years, things have gone really well for writer Anna Quindlen. "When I came to The New York Times as a reporter in 1978, at age 25, I thought I'd been hired because I was aces at my job," she writes in her new nonfiction book, "Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake." "It took me a few months to figure out that a small group of courageous women had sued the paper and that the hiring of a bumper crop of female reporters and editors . . . was the result."
That was the beginning of Quindlen's charmed life, one that led to her enormously popular Times column, "Life in the Thirties"; then more than a dozen bestselling works of nonfiction, fiction and children's literature; a long, happy marriage with homes in the country and the city; a rewarding speaking career, and, best of all, three healthy, happy, grown children who get along beautifully and enjoy shopping in their mom's jam-packed attic to furnish their apartments.
Indeed, there are lots of candles and plenty of cake for Quindlen. There is pride and self-acceptance and a wry resignation to the aging process. There are dear girlfriends, beloved pets and welcome times of solitude, and there is the family reading of "A Christmas Carol" every December. Maybe there has never been a perfect figure, but there is great vigor and excellent health to make up for it -- these days, she can even do one-armed push-ups and a headstand.
What there is not, oddly enough, is any conflict, or tension or darkness. That entire side of life, somehow, has been relegated to Quindlen's fiction, where domestic abuse, mass murder, abandonment and untimely death abound. True, the author's mother died of cancer when Quindlen was in college, and she might have ended up with a drinking problem, it seems, if she had not had her last beer several decades ago. But largely she has had the biography her nonfiction titles suggest: "Loud and Clear," "A Short Guide to a Happy Life," "Being Perfect."
As she puts it in the first line of this collection, "It's odd when I think of the arc of my life, from child to young woman to aging adult. First I was who I was. Then I didn't know who I was. Then I invented someone and became her. Then I began to like what I'd invented. And finally I was what I was again."
If that summary strikes you as a little fuzzy, a little smug, a little less than stylishly composed, you may be one of the small group of readers who, like me, can't quite understand how Quindlen's work has won such a huge and loyal audience. To me, the pieces are often not much more than strings of platitudes, lots of "telling" and little "showing," short on good stories, surprises, sharp writing and humor.
But for millions of readers, Quindlen's earnest observations are as comfy as a favorite nightgown. Her life is as deliciously enviable as the Pottery Barn kitchen in a Nancy Meyers film. Her positions are liberal, feminist and hard to disagree with. So don't let me stop you from getting your own slice of Quindlen's signature recipe. But no more cake for me, please.