“It often seems, looking back, that the unexpected comes to define us, the paths we didn’t see coming and may have wandered down by mistake. The older we get the more willing we are to follow those, to surprise ourselves. After all, all we can do is fail, and the failure loses so much of its sting over time. We not only know how to fall, we know how to get up. We’ve done it so often.”
I discovered Anna Quindlen’s sweet and sagacious memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake in the best possible way: an enthusiastic recommendation from my mother. “You must read this,” she said. “It’s so perfect.” It’s a book I probably would have passed on while browsing the bookstore (the bright red jacket, perhaps?). But my mother’s ebullience was as much about my coming to better know her, as it was to better know Quindlen. And in the end, inadvertently, I came to better know myself, too. What makes Quindlen’s memoir so magnetic is that, while it speaks to the juggles and struggles of my mother’s generation, it offers deep wisdom to me and to the larger company of daughters. When I finished reading it, I too passed it along to a friend.
Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake covers extensive ground: female friendships, marriage, parenting, career, beauty, faith, and aging. Life, basically. The implications of the women’s movement are the facets through which Quindlen contemplates her subject matter: how exactly one goes about “having it all.” In Quindlen’s hands, the analysis flows organically, poetically, purposefully. I trust the knowledge she imparts partly because she is so adept at articulation. (And partly because it just makes excellent sense.) Quindlen’s eternal, internal push is to “[make] a world out of words,” and she is so damn good at it. I want to live in that world, where the chaos of life is tempered by her measured voice and soothing syntax.
I believe that stories find their readers at the exact right moment. I have many books on my shelves yet to be cracked because instinctively I know it’s not the right time. I will love them…eventually. On the other hand, the publishing powers-that-be may release a new book precisely when I crave it most. For me, this memoir was an unexpected treasure I devoured immediately because, at present, I am facing yet another crossroads in life. As such, Quindlen instantly assumed the role of soul sister—an unknowing accomplice in my quest to perpetually ask “why.” She admits that even in her sixties, “all I really know about myself is what the big rock outside my writing porch has engraved on it: ‘Nothing is written in stone.’” And she will remain a beacon of encouragement to me as I continue following the paths I hope will lead me to the roles I covet: creator, wife, mother, porch-dweller, dog companion. And, most indulgently, solitude-seeker.
Quindlen devotes many pages to the paradoxical process of growing older. In our culture, youth is revered, but as we of course know, with age comes greater comfort in and understanding of the self. Yet no matter what stage of life we find ourselves, Quindlen suggests this: “I believe that there are essential mysteries, things written on the body that we sense and still cannot quite figure out or define. The future is one of them. It’s not so much that it’s unknowable as that it’s unfeelable.” Indeed, knowledge is calculable, but feeling is inexplicable. So how can we ever rely on the future if we’re navigating the present by feel? It’s life greatest challenge and most beautiful aspect—the terrifying delight of daily discovery. And the summation of Quindlen’s daily discoveries make for a wonderful and reassuring read.
Citation: Quindlen, Anna. Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. New York, Random House, 2012. Print.