Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake (Review II)

Image of Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake: A Memoir of a Woman's Life
Release Date: 
April 24, 2012
Random House
Reviewed by: 

“This Pulitzer Prize winner’s universal appeal . . . shines through in Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake . . .”

Imagine sitting in a local coffee shop with your best friend, steam rising from two cups of java and nothing but time to examine your life. Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake evokes just such a picture.

In her breezy conversational style, Anna Quindlen expounds on subjects that are sure to touch every reader in some way. From convent school and class reunions to female friends and long-lasting marriages with the right man, she offers her perspective after having experienced them all during her six decades on this earth.

Ms. Quindlen’s comfortable, familiar, honest, and, at times humorous tone makes the reader want to remain in that virtual coffee shop long after reading the last page–and also do a bit of introspection.

As the title implies, the subject of aging underlies the content in this book. Lately, a variety of such stories have hit the shelves in chain stores and online markets, but in this particular version Ms. Quindlen tackles the subject with her typical fresh and no-nonsense style.

She dives in with one of the most obvious signs of aging: the breakdown of the physical body. With a no-holds-barred attitude, Ms. Quindlen compares hers to an appliance that breaks down after years of use. After all, having had three children and undergoing the different cycles of life, her outward structure is well worn. Describing her body as “a personality delivery system,” she cites the changing mindsets she has experienced throughout her lifetime, given a particular situation.

For instance, as she heads to the doctor’s office for a mammogram, she faces what she calls “Mortality Monday.” Adhering to this prescribed preventative care dredges up the real possibility of terminal illness for the author. Female readers will never again approach this dreaded examination with the same mindset.

Although time takes its toll physically, Ms. Quindlen views the years we spend on earth as an opportunity for education and enlightenment. “It’s nothing short of astonishing what we learn by the time we are born and the time we die. Of course, most of the learning takes place not in a classroom or a library, but in the laboratory of our own lives,” she writes. “The things we learn between birth and death constitute one long experiment in which we try to discover who we are.”

And while a communal setting presents opportunities for intellectual stimulation and growth, solitude has its advantages, writes Ms. Quindlen. Time spent alone can be a time for reflecting on the accumulated insight only advanced age can provide. “One of the useful things about age is realizing that conventional wisdom is often simply inertia with a candy coating of conformity.” She adds, “. . . one of the greatest gifts of growing older is trusting your own sense of yourself . . .”

On a more practical level, Ms. Quindlen offers a realistic perspective on women as caregivers, whether for children or for aging parents. She writes, “The most liberated generation of women in American history, raised on the notion that we could be much more than caregivers, became caregivers cubed.”

As young mothers, we believe “children before our own had been raised by wolves.” She admits to embracing this philosophy until the 1990s when a southern woman admonishes her for one of her columns that presents “new” insights about working and raising kids.

Every generation passes judgment; Ms. Quindlen admits to falling into this trap. “And then one day we wake to discover that we are the older women we once discounted, and one’s perspective shifts.”

This Pulitzer Prize winner’s universal appeal, which, at times, surprised her—“Sometimes I would think I was the only person alive concerned about some crazy cul-de-sac of human behavior. Then I would get the letters from readers and realize that that was not the case, that we were not alone, any of us”—shines through in Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake as well. Readers will certainly identify with the themes Ms. Quindlen weaves throughout this book.

No subject is off-limits. One of the more humorous sections discusses the disparities in women’s lingerie and how it defines each generation. From “granny panties” to “bikinis” and “barely-there lace thongs,” her daughter’s favorite, she ruminates on the evolution undercover wear undergoes in much the same way the wearers do. She likens this progression—or maybe regression—in undergarment preference to “a road map of the difference in sexual mores and openness through the years.”

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake is a story of balance, strength and persistence, a true celebration of life and the advantages, challenges, and excitement of living in these times.

According to the author, age brings not only wisdom but also awareness and gratitude for the things that went right. And Ms. Quindlen admits that many things in her life have gone right. “For me, one of the greatest glories of growing older is the willingness to ask why and, getting no good answer, deciding to follow my own inclinations and desires.”

Ms. Quindlen sums up her philosophy on growing older by writing, “That’s the hallmark of aging, too, that we learn to go deeper, in our friendships, in our family life, in our reflections on how we live and how we face the future.”

Best of all, however, is the author’s definition: “. . . old is where you haven’t gotten to yet.”