Reading Anna Quindlen’s new collection of essays is like following a fever chart of American society as it intersects with her life.
Motherhood? The line goes up. Teenage alcohol use, Enron, racial profiling? The line slopes down. Sept. 11? Down, down, down.
And finally, the privilege and hard work that comes with writing columns for The New York Times and Newsweek? The line climbs higher once again.
“Down-to-earth” is the way her writing is often described, and that’s true here. Quindlen’s essays come across as both broad of scope and personal in nature, a way of processing the world at large along with her world at home.
Quindlen has written four novels and four nonfiction books prior to this one, and she won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for her Times column “Public & Private.” Yet as she makes clear in this book of columns that span a decade, she still struggles — with work, with family, with expectations — just like the rest of us.
That’s Quindlen’s trademark appeal, the ability to capture the societal blips that shape a culture. The conflict between workplace and home life. The feeling of being under assault by forces great and small, from Columbine and terrorism to standardized testing and “Survivor.” The struggle with mortality.
“I needed my mother again the other day,” she writes in a January 1997 column. “This time it was a fairly serious matter, a question from my doctor about our family medical history. Most of the time, what I want is more trivial: the name of the family that lived next to us on Kenwood Road, the fate of that black wool party dress with the killer neckline, curiosity about whether those tears were real or calculated to keep all five of us in line. …
“I’ve needed my mother many, many times over the last 25 years, but she has never been there, except in my mind, where she tells me to buy quality, keep my hair off my face, and give my father the benefit of the doubt.”
Quindlen uses her words like a chef’s cleaver, slicing just so, a deft movement revealing the aching heart of the matter. She treats her audience with respect. Even in anger, the tone remains civil.
“Never mind if you are asking yourself why a nation we were told was lousy with chemical and biological weapons never used them during a punishing bombardment,” she writes in a 2003 column. “Never mind if you are asking yourself why the oft-invoked but never factually supported ties between Saddam and al-Qaeda didn’t lead to the predicted terrorist attack in the United States. Sit down, you’re rocking the boat.”
But she’s not all eat-your-spinach. Her touch can be engagingly light. On her father’s third marriage: “This makes him seem a good deal more Liz Taylorish than is accurate or fair.” On new evidence that hormone replacement therapy is dangerous for women: “Want to clear a crowded room? Start a discussion about menopause.”
This is Quindlen’s territory, from Power Rangers to prayer in school, from gay marriage to modern-day feminism, asking questions of meaning and identity. And at her best — as she is in many of these essays — she hits it dead on, reshaping the issue, redefining the moment.
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