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Quindlen's memoir more lamentation than celebration

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It was bound to happen. Second-wave feminists are feeling their age, and the results aren't pretty.

Nora Ephron feels bad about her neck. Betty Friedan is dead but not before writing The Fountain of Age. Now, Anna Quindlen has too many candles on her birthday cake. Soon we can expect to see the authors of Our Bodies, Ourselves shilling for Polident.

The American novelist and former journalist Anna Quindlen has served up a big slice of cake to commemorate her new memoir, a collection of discreet essays called Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, but the result leaves an aftertaste that is a little bitter and sad.

As Quindlen reluctantly approaches her sixth decade, there's a maudlin tone that overtakes her prose, a kind of tired ambivalence, as she explores her own mortality and that of her aging boomer cohorts.

By 1970s standards, Quindlen has enjoyed a fairy tale career. She graduated from Barnard College in 1974 and accepted a position at the New York Post before moving on to the New York Times in 1977 where she made a name for herself -- and won a Pulitzer Prize -- writing an autobiographical column, Public and Private.

In 1995, Quindlen dramatically quit the newsroom to write bestselling novels full-time. But she resurfaced at Newsweek to write a biweekly column from 2000-2009. Quindlen said she stepped aside from that national platform to make room for new talent.

Quindlen turns 60 in July, so this book is a summing up. In it, she reflects on her charmed and complicated life as a working mother and embraces the present with an inevitable sense of pragmatism.

There are some dark corners in Quindlen's tidy, bourgeois life as an upper-middle-class married mother of three and successful columnist. Her mother died at 40 of ovarian cancer and inspired the novel turned film One True Thing. Despite this early trauma, Quindlen has overcome her grief to enjoy a prolific writing career since she quit the newsroom. She boasts seven non-fiction collections and six novels.

Some readers will find solace and inspiration in these pages as the columnist turned essayist dishes on well-worn magazine topics like menopause, fear, manic mothers and marriage.

Other well-worn topics include the sandwich generation, raising feminist sons, mother-daughter squabbling, work-life balance and Sandra Day O'Connor. Quindlen's descriptions of her life as a lapsed Catholic is preferable to the depiction of herself as "poised between the inevitable and the possible."

Mommy bloggers and child-free hipsters will find the material quaint and dated. Quindlen appears to be entombed in the domestic realm she so successfully depicted in her prime column-writing years.

The empty nest is less appealing, and Quindlen seems to be wandering from room-to-room in search of her lost vitality -- or new subject matter.

The collection lags whenever Quindlen moves from the specific to the general. Using the pronoun "we," she fumbles around for universal meaning and veers into grouchy Andy Rooney territory: "We've been a wandering breed, we Americans straddling the 20th and 21st centuries, changing jobs, changing homes, changing spouses, religions, political parties."

It's advisable to steer clear of certain aging authors. (Yes, Joan Didion.) Some despairing subject matter should be roped off, lest it send mid-life readers over the edge at this delicate stage of life.

There may be lots of candles on this cake but Quindlen has indulged in the hostesses's mistaken prerogative of self-indulgence: "It's my party and I'll cry if I want to."

This memoir is more lamentation than celebration. If feminists really want to revel in the whole dreary topic of aging, the should crack open Simone de Beauvoir's classic The Coming of Age.

 

Saskatchewan-based freelance journalist Patricia Dawn Robertson graduated from York University's women's studies program in 1990.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 26, 2012 J10

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