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Salon: A Milestone Birthday

Anna Quindlen ’74, photo by Joyce Ravid

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake
by Anna Quindlen ’74
Random House, 2012, $26

Anticipating a new decade prompted Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anna Quindlen to look both back and forward as she contemplated aging, the launch of three children from the nest, and her new ability to do a headstand.

“My life is nothing like I imagined, and so much better than I could have expected,” she writes in her latest book, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, “and that goes for this moment in my life, when I am beginning to flirt with the idea of old age. I have a feeling I may be cut out to be an old woman.”

Quindlen, chair of Barnard’s board of trustees from 2003 to 2010, explores her simmering disconnect with the Catholic church, explains why she no longer drinks, and considers her daughter at 19, Quindlen’s age when her own mother died. In every chapter, she scrutinizes a facet of her essence, concluding, “The older we get, the better we get at being ourselves.”

What are your goals for your next decade? 

I want to write some more novels. I want to someday be a good grandmother. I want to spend as much time as I can with my friends and family. I want to stop saying “yes” to things when I really want to say “no.” I want to get up close and personal with whales in the wild.

Much of what you reveal in Lots of Candles has been fodder for criticism, whether it’s the contents of your two homes or your use of Botox. Have you ever regretted being so candid? 

I’ve been self-censoring since I was 33 years old and began writing about my kids in “Life in the 30s” in The New York Times.
I’ve gotten quite adept at figuring out where to draw the line, for the sake of my comfort level and that of my loved ones.

The response to the Botox comments cracked me up. Here’s something magical: Millions of people now use Botox, but somehow it’s never anyone you actually know. Even those people you know who have foreheads that look as though they’ve just been ironed. Who are we lying for? I don’t know. All I know is that if you’re writing a book about aging, you’re going to mention some of these cosmetic techniques, and that begs the question of whether you’ve gone there yourself. So when the question was begged, I answered. Truthfully.

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, photo by Joyce Ravid

Do you think the women’s movement is still viable? What do young women need from feminism? And what do they bring to the table? 

The women’s movement is different than it was when I was a Barnard student. Let’s think back: Classified ads were still divided into male and female, and most of the female jobs were secretarial. There were single-digit quotas at professional schools.

Two years after I graduated, a group of women brought a class-action suit against the Times that resulted in, among other things, my employment there. So great change was needed at the macro level. Today many of the assumptions and goals of the women’s movement have been absorbed into our culture. Every time a working-class dad assumes his daughter is going to go to college and get a good job, that’s the women’s movement at work.

What we need now is a more egalitarian atmosphere at home, because that’s why women sometimes take themselves out of the running for promotion and why many of them are so tired, because they are doing two full-time jobs. It’s time for men to step up. They are already reaping the benefits in terms of not having to be the sole wage earner in the home. They need to shoulder more of the responsibilities.

As for my daughter, my sons, and their generation, I think they bring tolerance, diversity and balance to the table. I’m very optimistic about this generation.

In a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross on NPR, you said that six months after your mother died, you hired a housekeeper and “sort of fled” to college. When you look back now, how did that decision shape your life? 

There used to be a rich tradition of Irish-Catholic daughters sacrificing their lives for the greater good. I didn’t want to be part of that tradition. When September came, it was time to go back to school, and I did. I can’t even imagine a parallel life in which I stayed at home, because I get so nauseous. I’m not cut out for self-sacrifice.

You write that your life has been nothing like you imagined. What did you imagine it would be? 

I didn’t have a game plan, but if I had it would just have been … less. Less in terms of the jobs I thought I might hold and the personal decisions I would be willing to make about my own career. Less in terms of the breadth of my family life. I wouldn’t have had the audacity to think in terms of the columns, the best-seller list, the three fantastic kids. I would have had narrower plans, which is why I suppose I’m glad I didn’t make many.

—by June D. Bell

—Photographs by Joyce Ravid