Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake
by Anna Quindlen

Random House, 2012. ISBN 978-1-400-06934-7.
Reviewed by Judy Alter
Posted on 07/04/2012
Review of the Month, July 2012

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Life Lessons; Nonfiction: Elders

I have always believed that a really good book should leave you in a slightly different place than you were when you started it—moved, somehow, emotionally, intellectually, whatever. Anna Quindlen's Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake did that for me. I will be pondering bits and pieces of the book for a long time. Twenty-five years ago, Quindlen began writing a column for the New York Times called "Life in the 30s" about ordinary women and how they lived. Now, at sixty she looks back and reflects on what she learned in the intervening years.

Quindlen is not an ordinary woman. She's a journalist and novelist, a former columnist for the Times, a Pulitzer Prize winner, but she shared a life with many of us—a career, three children, a good marriage. Most of us would think she had it all.

Looking back, she says she's never been happier in her life—she wouldn't want to be twenty-five again for anything—and she believes that's true of most of us. Quindlen has come to a comfortable acceptance of life as she finds it—her marriage, her times of living alone at the couple's country place, her grown children, even the prospect of aging, in which she sees opportunity rather than despair. She talks about the stories we tell ourselves—we're too fat, too old, too thin. She calls death the "elephant in the room;" we talk about aging in terms of aches, pains, plantar fasciitis and crępey necks, but we never acknowledge the elephant.

Quindlen likes her life as it is and is not ready for it to end but she recognizes the inevitable. She may deny it, perhaps even dislike being called it, but I think she is a wise and compassionate woman. She brings common sense to everything from parenting, to faith, to generations, and mortality. Just when you think you might catch her in a platitude she shifts the line of thought and surprises you. And yes, there are bits of humor throughout. Of marriage she says: "A small safety net of white lies can be the bedrock of a successful marriage. You wouldn't believe how cheaply I can do a kitchen renovation."

As for myself, I found sentences on almost every page that leaped out at me. I frequently longed to sit down and talk with Quindlen, to say, "Yes, but let me tell you how it was for me." I believe she would understand; girlfriends are a freely chosen family.The sense of what it means to be a woman and a mother, and even a human being, has changed so much in our lifetimes we can't keep up. Exercise is necessary because your body is designed to carry you from place to place, like a car, and you want it to work well. Old is wherever you aren't yet (oh my, do I know that one)—along with her idea that retirement can kill you unless you make it productive. Having children, she says, made her better than herself and helped her understand growing older—I understand the first part of that but am not so sure about the second half. Maybe, she posits, it all comes down to whether you see your swan song as a dirge or a ditty.

At seventy-four, I am still coping with my own aging and mortality. I have grandchildren to supervise, books to write and books to read, and things I want to do. Anna Quindlen, with quiet wisdom, has given me food for thought as I go through these years. Read the book—you'll find passages that speak to you, even if you're much younger.

Read an excerpt from this book.

Anna Quindlen is a novelist and journalist whose work has appeared on fiction, nonfiction, and self-help bestseller lists. Her book A Short Guide to a Happy Life has sold more than a million copies. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her work as a columnist for the New York Times and later wrote columns for Newsweek. She is also the author of six novels. Visit her website.

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