Anna Quindlen

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Anna Quindlen and Marilyn Gardner (interview date 13 October 1988)

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SOURCE: Quindlen, Anna, and Marilyn Gardner. “Columnist Anna Quindlen.” Christian Science Monitor 80, no. 223 (13 October 1988): 21-2.

[In the following interview, Quindlen discusses women in the workplace, child care, and her future plans.]

Early in her third pregnancy, Anna Quindlen, the syndicated columnist, made an important decision.

Quindlen would not undergo amniocentesis, a medical procedure commonly performed on women over age 35 to determine the condition of the fetus.

She and her husband, she reasoned, were prepared to raise and love the baby, due in November, regardless of its physical or mental condition.

Later, when Quindlen wrote a column about her decision, the piece drew more mail than any she had written. Although she had expected a lively response from readers, she says she “didn't expect so much of the discussion and the distress to coalesce around me personally.”

One woman in particular rankled her by writing, “The Anna Quindlen I know would never have made this decision.”

“I was stomping around the kitchen,” Quindlen recalls, “and I said to my husband, ‘She doesn't even know me!’ He replied, ‘For 2[frac12] years you've given people permission to know you, and you've invited them into this house. You can't pull the plug now just because you don't like it.’”

For a writer, this kind of emotional connection with strangers is one of the perils of Quindlen's brand of self-revelatory reporting.

Yet for readers, her weekly invitation into the kitchen, nursery, and psyche of a thoroughly '80s family has proved to be enormously appealing.

About 60 newspapers now carry her column, syndicated by the New York Times. And 65 of those columns—dealing with everything from marriage and motherhood to sibling rivalry and junk food—have been collected in a book, Living Out Loud.

“We've sort of edged into this first-person, home-based journalism, which has really taken over now,” Quindlen explains.

“It's taken us a while to get to the point where people are comfortable with you saying, ‘Gee, my mother died, and it changed my life.’ Or, ‘I'm going to have a baby, and I don't want to have this test, because I couldn't do anything to end its life.’”

For Quindlen, the oldest of five children raised in what she describes as “the silly branch of a funny family,” the strength of her columns derives from the 15 years she spent as a reporter—first for the New York Post and then for the New York Times, where she covered city hall and served as deputy metropolitan editor.

Now, instead of reporting breaking news, her beat involves “reporting on my life.”

It's a life she shares with husband, Gerald Krovatin, a criminal defense lawyer, and the couple's two young sons, Quin, 5, and Christopher, 2.

It's also a life she describes as “charmed,” saying, “I have the kind of work that makes it easy to work part time and at home. And I have the kind of husband who, A, is there, and, B, makes enough money so we don't have to worry about getting quality child care.”

At the same time, Quindlen empathizes with parents who do not share those advantages. “It's still incredibly hard to combine career and family,” she says. Yet, she admits, she is “not as thrilled as I should be” by the current political debate over family issues.

“When they start talking about child-care programs, I get nervous at the idea of the feds running child care. My experience is that the feds don't run things that well. If a national child-care program ran the way some other federal agencies did, it would be deeply troubling.”

Instead, she argues in favor of more corporate initiatives, such as on-site day care and six-month parental leaves that would include “a fair amount of salary, no loss of seniority, and, most important, no onus attached to them. That's why men don't take paternity leaves. It's considered a wimp thing to take paternity leave. That attitude has got to go.”

Last year, during a two-week tour of the Soviet Union, Quindlen interviewed many working mothers, hearing first-hand about that country's paid leave policy and national day-care system.

“It all sounds hunky-dory on paper,” she says. “But what so many of those women were saying to us was, ‘I wish I could have stayed home with my kids for a year, a year and a half, two years.’

“It was so ironic. They would say, ‘Well, we have these nationally sponsored day-care centers, but they're not very good, and the kids get sick all the time.’ Many more of them were using their own mothers for day care—the babushka system.”

In the United States, she argues, “We have really fooled ourselves that if we had this superstructure in place, everything would be cool.

“For some people it will make things immeasurably better. But we don't want the feds to make the choice for us about whether we're going to provide our own child care for our kids, whether we're going to stay home with our kids, or how long we're going to stay home.”

As one measure of progress, Quindlen believes women are getting better at making their own choices about working or staying home.

“There's finally been enough written about how, once again, women were conforming to other people's expectations. Except instead of the Betty Crocker expectation, it had now become the three-piece-suit expectation. More and more women are saying, ‘To heck with the expectations! I've just got to do what feels right to me.’”

Despite obvious advances for women, Quindlen sees evidence of “a little too much gusto in the debunking of the having-it-all myth, and a little bit of the sense of ‘Well, you wanted equality—don't complain that you're tired.’ I also think there's some complacency settling in.”

She tells of one incident four years ago when a respected editor at the Times told her, “The woman thing isn't a problem anymore. We have so many of them, and in 10 years they'll be running the paper.”

“He really believed it,” she says. “I couldn't get over it. Sure, there were so many more women than when I came to the paper. But there wasn't a woman on the masthead, and there wasn't a woman in a senior editor's position. Some of that has changed in the years since then.

“But you worry that nationwide the corporate leaders are going to develop that kind of mentality. That they're going to look around at an office that's now 25 percent women and say, ‘We don't have to worry about women anymore.’

“I won't worry about women anymore when half of the top management positions in most companies are filled by women who will help other women. There's safety in supremacy, not just numbers.”

At the end of November, Quindlen's column-writing days will end.

“I think columnists usually outstay their welcome,” she explains, adding, “I don't want to take that chance.”

But fans will have another chance to follow her family in a television series—timing still uncertain—to be based on her book of columns. And next year Random House will publish her first novel.

After that?

“I'd be perfectly happy to stay home and write book-length fiction for the rest of my life,” she says cheerfully. But she doesn't rule out the possibility of eventually returning to the newspaper business.

“There are certain places where you feel at home. Certainly one of them for me is at home. But another one for me is in a newspaper newsroom.”

Whatever she does is likely to matter less than the energy and style with which she does it. Behind a certain professional wariness, Quindlen is a celebrator, extending to her readers the same deal she promises her children.

“I want to give my children a sense of joie de vivre,” she says. “If I only give them one thing, that's it. I want them to wake up every morning and think, ‘Life is great.’ That's so much more important than even intellectual achievement.”

Marilyn Fenichel (review date April 1989)

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SOURCE: Fenichel, Marilyn. “Spokeswoman for Our Time.” Psychology Today 23, no. 4 (April 1989): 71.

[In the following review, Fenichel asserts that Quindlen's personal essays about being female work more effectively than her political ones in Living Out Loud.]

While reading Living Out Loud, I came across a section I found particularly pithy. Eager to share my find, I read it to my significant other. He listened closely, but when I read the punch line, I could tell by looking at his face that he just didn't get it.

The reason for his puzzlement is simple. Living Out Loud is really about being female, with its ambiguities and uncertainties as well as its joys and rewards. Adopted from Anna Quindlen's “Life in the Thirties” column in The New York Times, the book covers it all: mothering and the deaths of mothers, relationships with men and relating to women, religion, politics at home and outside, and a range of miscellany.

The result is a book that speaks loudly and clearly to middle-class women of similar age (Quindlen is 36) and educational background (she went to Barnard). The liability is that men may feel a bit left out. But despite this, the book is a joy to read, a testament to the old adage that what is most profound is found in the simple pleasures of everyday life.

Consider, for example, an early essay in the book, “The Lightning Bugs Are Back.” Watching her children see lightning bugs for the first time and hearing them exclaim “Mommy, it's magic” was the reason, she says, that she had children at all. The image was powerful to me, evoking memories of myself as a child as well as reminding me of the many young children I know now and have grown to love.

Other essays hit the mark just as effectively. In “Bookworm,” Quindlen explains in great detail her relationship with Elizabeth Bennett, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice. “The only thing I don't like about Pride and Prejudice is the ending,” she says, “because then it's over.” And in “Heredity,” she describes a lunch with friends whose mothers had all died young of diseases they were convinced they were doomed to inherit. (Quindlen's own mother died of cancer when the author was 19.) “If I can make it past forty-seven,” said one whose mother had died at that age, “then I'll be home free.”

But Quindlen does less well when she ventures into the political arena. Those essays (“Feminist,” “Getting Involved” and “Condoms,” for example) seem less profound, more trite and predictable. They don't offer a fresh perspective on familiar problems—the hallmark of Quindlen at her best—or have a unique turn of phrase that stays with you. They stand out as flat in a book that sparkles.

Living Out Loud, however, succeeds at taking thoughts that seem too personal to say out loud and thrusting them into the public domain. The process of making life's undercurrents explicit has the effect of making them seem less terrifying. Like the monsters Quindlen's son discovers under his bed, life's tribulations are always going to be there to deal with. But they are a little easier to face when you know that someone else feels the same way.

Anna Quindlen and Sybil Steinberg (interview date 15 March 1991)

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SOURCE: Quindlen, Anna, and Sybil Steinberg. “Anna Quindlen.” Publishers Weekly 238, no. 13 (15 March 1991): 40-1.

[In the following interview, Quindlen discusses her career and her first novel, Object Lessons.]

To reach Anna Quindlen's office at the New York Times one walks down a corridor past doors identified with discreet brass plaques: Arthur Gelb, Tom Wicker, Russell Baker. Neat and composed, with a serious, direct gaze, Quindlen ushers PW into her spacious digs, with a wall of windows affording an enviable view of midtown Manhattan. “They were very careful to let me know that my office was the same size as Russell Baker's,” Quindlen says, her cool suddenly replaced by an impish smile. “I wanted to say, ‘Hey, guys, I'll be happy as long as I have a wastebasket!’”

As readers of her syndicated op-ed column, “Public and Private,” in the Times are well aware, Quindlen is a no-nonsense person who tempers gravity with humor and righteous indignation with forbearance, qualities she previously demonstrated in her “Life in the '30s” columns in the Times's style section. Quindlen tackles the basic questions of life with trenchant and sensitive insight; she has a gift for turning the quotidian into the existential, the mundane into the meaningful. What distinguishes her commentary is not so much that it is intelligent and courageous, but that it reveals a fierce and compassionate heart. Now she has written a novel that displays the same characteristics. Object Lessons, out from Random House next month, is the coming-of-age story of Maggie Scanlon, who grows up in an observant Catholic home in the late 1960s, the daughter of an Italian mother and an Irish father.

One of the characters in the novel describes Maggie: “… the child's odd behavior, her air of watchfulness, was an object lesson in what happened when you mixed blood that wasn't meant to be mixed.” Readers of “Life in the '30s,” collected in a volume called Living Out Loud (1988), know that Quindlen shares a background similar to her protagonist's. She readily admits that the novel has “strong autobiographical underpinnings.” Though she often felt caught between two cultures, she says, “I did not feel the kind of hostility from the Irish half of the family that Maggie feels. My mother told me about being called dago. And there was the same physical difference: all of my cousins are from Irish/Irish families. They look Irish and we [she has four siblings] don't. We're the mongrel mix. But am I Maggie? Thank God, no. None of the events in the book ever happened to my family.”

Families and what happens to them, Quindlen says, is the common preoccupation that informs all her writing. “I can't think of anything to write about except families. They are a metaphor for every other part of society.” She claims that her new role as a commentator on national and international issues is no more awesome than was writing her “Life in the '30s” columns. “I had an enormous sense of responsibility when I was saying to people: this is what it's like to raise a child. Anybody who tries to convince me that foreign policy is more important than child rearing is doomed to failure. The two are linked. Today people are saying: ‘I want this guy Saddam out of the Middle East. But I don't want my kid's blood spilled.’ The personal has become the political in what I think is the most positive way.”

Though writing a novel may seem a digression for an influential journalist, fiction writing was Quindlen's initial ambition. In fact, she seemed well launched on that career while she was still a senior at Barnard. She had sent her first story to Seventeen expecting a rejection letter. A check arrived instead. “It seemed to me a miracle, a little like the loaves and fishes,’” she says.

During her college years, Quindlen also worked as a reporter for the New York Post, a job she retained for two years after graduation before moving to the Times in 1977. She has been there “on and off—the off being maternity leaves”—ever since.

“I went into newpaper writing to support my fiction habit. But I found it was more fun than anything in the world, that it was an end in itself, and also that it would be good for me as a fiction writer. After 20 years of writing down what real people say, if I write dialogue that doesn't sound like it comes out of anybody's mouth, I've been an abject failure at two careers.”

Marriage (to lawyer Gerry Krovatin) and the birth of their first son didn't derail Quindlen from the fast track, but she never found the “golden opportunity” to sit down and write the novel. She was deputy metropolitan editor of the Times in 1985 when her second son was born and she realized that nurturing and novel-writing could constitute a full-time job on her own premises. Six months later, the Times asked her to write a series of “Hers” columns on women's issues. These proved so popular that Quindlen was approached by other newspapers to do the same thing. “I had promised Abe [A. M. Rosenthal, then executive editor of the Times] before I left that I would never as long as I lived work for another paper,” Quindlen says, widening her hazel eyes in mock horror. “My only defense is that my body was flooded with hormones.” An accomplished mimic, she replays the scene. “He said, ‘Do the column for us.’ It took him about three minutes to come up with the concept, the day it would run and the title: ‘Let's see, how old are you?’ ‘34.’ ‘Okay, let's call it Life in the 30s.’

“I thought of the column as a way to make a little bit of money while writing my novel. I was just trying hard not to disgrace myself,” Quindlen says. Splitting her time between the novel and the columns was not a problem. “The more I write the more I write,” she explains. “If I hadn't had ‘Life in the 30s’ to write I never would have finished the novel.”

One discipline helped another. “In a way, I reported this book. I walked up to these people and took in where they lived and what they looked like. They talked into these notebooks that were in my mind.”

“I find fiction oddly liberating, precisely because it isn't fact. Reporting on a story, there's always the anecdote you didn't get or the quote that you know would have been there if you had more time to dig for it. In fiction, you don't have to give up, and you don't have to worry about spelling the names right. But if you're liberated by the form, you're imprisoned by the characters. You find that out the first time you try to make them say or do something they wouldn't really say or do.”

What is difficult, she concedes, is the juggling act of being a wife/mother/homemaker and a writer. Now that she and her husband have a third child, a daughter, her working schedule relies on dependable child care. Since she does most of her writing in her office at home, Quindlen is able to take her sons to school each day, and then spend the morning reading newspapers, checking facts for her columns and talking to friends on the phone (they are a great source of ideas, she says). She has lunch with her daughter and drops her at preschool, leaving the rest of the afternoon for work: from about 1:30 to 5 p.m., when the sitter departs.

This daily routine is a far cry from the kind of family structure in which Quindlen was raised in the '50s and '60s—first in Philadelphia, then West Virginia (where she was expelled from convent school for sneaking out at night) and finally New Jersey. These were the last decades of an era when a mother's place was in the home and, in a Catholic home, the rules of conduct were fixed and inflexible. In Living Out Loud, Quindlen has acknowledged “the great blessing and the horrible curse of enormous possibility” felt by women, and especially Catholic women, in the '70s. Her convictions as a liberal (she says “cultural”) Catholic and a feminist inform all her work, which is outspoken in its defense of women and minority rights, and which has often put her in direct opposition to Church teachings. Her columns attacking Church policy on birth control, abortion, homosexuality and the ordination of women priests have elicited vigorous criticism from some of her coreligionists—in fact, on the day we interview her, two highly critical letters, one accusing her of Catholic bashing, appear in the Times.

“It makes me feel terrible,” Quindlen says. “I go to communion on Sunday thinking that the priest at the very last minute will say, no way. People ask me, why not just leave, why not become an Episcopalian? But I have a moral obligation—with the reservations I have, and with the enormous love I have for the Church—to stay. I want to say: What you've built on is the best of humanity, and some of what you've added—not what He added—grows out of the worst sentiments in ancient history, history which we've far outstripped.”

The Church hasn't had to put up with much public criticism by Catholics, she observes. “But they ought to know that I'm speaking for the majority of Catholic women.”

And for other women too. A fervent feminist, Quindlen attacks outmoded values that continue to define the roles and responsibilities of the sexes. “Women were freed to have wonderful jobs, but for most of us it turned out to be the right to have two jobs.” Unless the relationships between men and women “are overhauled in some primary, radical way, it will turn out to be an incomplete revolution and one that is essentially meaningless to working-class and poor women.”

The bond forged with her agent Amanda Urban and with Random House during the publication of Living Out Loud has been strongly reinforced by Quindlen's experiences with Object Lessons. Kate Medina, who edited the first book, remains Quindlen's editor. “That is not an honorary title,” Quindlen says. “She edited the bejeesus out of this book, which was exactly what I was looking for. I didn't want to think, 10 years from now, that this would have been a wonderful book if it had been well edited. Kate helped me shape events and she line-edited too.”

With the air of a child about to spill a secret, Quindlen confesses, “There is one thing I have to come clean about. I'm really bad about titles. For five years I thought of this book as ‘the long thing,’ or ‘untitled work of fiction number one.’ When Carol Schneider [vice-president of publicity at Random House] read the book in galleys, she told Kate that it seemed to be all about object lessons.” According to Quindlen, the suggestion was epiphanic. “You know that you have the perfect title when you realize it was always the title and you didn't know it.”

Other aspects of the book seem similarly blessed. It is a Literary Guild selection, with first serial rights to Redbook. And, reports Quindlen, her gamine features alight with glee, there is a $200,000 paperback floor. She professes to be astonished by these auspicious events. “Look, it's a first novel. I know what first novels do. I have spent the last 20 years of my life reading fabulous first novels in galleys and thinking that the book would really take off and finding out later that it sold 3000 copies.”

But Quindlen had her audience firmly in mind when she began Object Lessons. The central image for her, and the catalyst for the novel's plot, is a housing development that disturbs the quiet, slightly shabby, mostly Irish Westchester neighborhood where Maggie's family lives. “I've always thought of the new kind of construction that began in the 1960s as a kind of metaphor for the worst kind of changes in our society. I think of Sheetrock as symbolizing America in the latter part of the 20th century in the same way that plaster over lath is symbolic of the first part. There became something sort of flimsy and disposable about us. You can see in the novel that this kind of cohesive family structure is going to fall apart by the third generation. That's going to be liberating as well as a great loss.”

If Quindlen has one hope for Object Lessons, it's that it won't be called a woman's novel, a designation she deplores. She feels there is no better medium than a novel of domesticity to mirror society's changes. “Real life is in the dishes,” she says, conviction ringing in her voice.

Maude McDaniel (review date 21 April 1991)

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SOURCE: McDaniel, Maude. “Anna Quindlen Writes a Wise Coming-of-Age Novel.” Chicago Tribune Books (21 April 1991): 6.

[In the following review, McDaniel praises Quindlen for her portrayal of adolescence and loss and for vivid characterization in Object Lessons.]

Adolescence is widely held these days to be a traumatic experience, and Anna Quindlen's first novel clearly supports the theory. On the other hand, although it closes with the thought that “our whole lives are puberty … we have to grow up again and again,” Object Lessons adds to that insight the possibility that, out of the turmoil, lessons can be learned and advances secured.

Quindlen first caught the public eye with the psychological acuity and wry reflection of her “Life in the 30s” articles in the New York Times and subsequent syndicated columns. She brings the same gifts to her fictional debut, along with a considerable skill for organizing them into a perceptive and appealing account of one summer in the life of Maggie Scanlon, age 12 going on 13, idol of her Irish grandfather's eye, felt to be a kindred spirit by her Italian grandfather and a vulnerable witness not only to her own growing pains but also to those of father, mother, cousins and friends, not to mention an aunt or two and assorted other acquaintances.

In this late 1960s summer, the marriage of Maggie's parents, Tom and Connie, begins to show the strain of Grandfather Scanlon's iron-fisted efforts at total control. Connie finds herself in the arms of an old high school acquaintance, and Tom weakens in his fight for independence from the old man.

Meanwhile, Maggie's companions face crises of sex and self-determination, her best friend Debbie separates herself from Maggie and the childhood they have spent together, a new housing development goes up in the neighborhood and Aunt Margaret, who resorted to the nunnery for peace and quiet, has taken to reading Gothic novels. When Grandfather Scanlon is felled by a stroke, Maggie knows that this is her “time of changes.”

Quindlen manages to sort out these characters and make them live as individuals. And she does this with casual flair, as in this paragraph about Maggie's mother's adolescent anguish with her own father and mother:

[Connie] had once turned to him, after yet another quarrel with her mother about her clothes, her manners, her schoolwork, herself, and asked tearfully, “Why did you marry her?” Angelo had turned away, begun wiping the kitchen counter, then suddenly had turned back and, lifting his silvery head, said in Italian, “Because she needed someone.” “Why you?” Connie had screamed back … the tears falling onto the hands she held against her cheeks. “She needed someone like me,” said Angelo, and went outside to his rosebushes while his daughter sat at the head of the kitchen table and sobbed.

Many other people come alive here, especially Grandfather Scanlon, a fear some and, to an outsider, amusing Irish-Catholic jingoist, who started out as a manufacturer of communion hosts and went on to develop several lines of religious wares.

“[He] hated the Kennedys, whom he saw as a bunch of second-rate Scanlons with too much hair,” Quindlen writes. “And he hated what was happening to the Catholic church because of Pope John XXIII, not because, like his contemporaries, he thought the changes were blasphemous, but because he thought they were bad for business.”

Maggie herself, more acted upon than acting, may be less clearly defined then some of the other characters. But perhaps that is because she is still in the process of becoming, the one who is to listen and learn.

Set in Kenwood, a suburb on the Westchester County border of the Bronx, the story pays little attention to the vast teeming city nearby, or to the rude, crude youth culture that even then was slouching toward Woodstock to be born. The Scanlon circle, both Italian and Irish, seems as self-contained as that of any small town, and the novel's object lessons are the small-town, ordinary kind, not sophisticated, big-city ambiguities.

It has become fashionable to celebrate losses, and this book is full of them—losses of innocence, control, selves, worlds. But beyond these are the less dramatic but more perdurable gains—mature marital love, closer understandings between in-laws, quietly internalized wisdoms that will warm whole lifetimes. Anna Quindlen has made a delightful contribution to the coming-of-age genre.

Carolyn See (review date 22 April 1991)

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SOURCE: See, Carolyn. “A Back-Yard Story Mired in the Morass.” Los Angeles Times (22 April 1991): E2.

[In the following review, See concludes that while much of Quindlen's Object Lessons is contrived, Quindlen exhibits a willingness to create horrible female characters.]

In the suburban town of Kenwood, just on the northern border of the Bronx, Maggie Scanlon grows up as a de facto half-caste. Her mother, Constance, is a gorgeous Italian Catholic. Maggie's maternal grandfather still survives as a gardener-caretaker in a lush Italian-Catholic cemetery. But Connie has married “up” into the huge Irish-Catholic Scanlon family. That grandfather, driven by greed and acquisitiveness, has made a very sizable fortune selling everything from cement to sacred vestments for Mass—vestments churned out in total squalor, over in the Philippine Islands, by overworked young girls in dreadful sweatshops.

It is Grandfather Scanlon's good pleasure to keep his extended family jumping through hoops—making them do every exact thing on earth he can think of for them to do. One of his daughters, Margaret, has escaped his grasp by becoming a nun. The rest of his children, all sons, sullenly do what their father tells them to do, except for Tommy, who, in a moment of love and rebellion, married the beautiful Connie.

These are Catholics, so by the time young Maggie hits her 13th summer, her father, Tommy, is only 33. Her mother has already had two miscarriages, four children, and is pregnant with a fifth. Connie is still simmering with fury that when she “had’ to get married to her husband, her family showed up, but his family stayed away. Now, her husband's family wants to co-opt her and make her into a good Scanlon daughter-in-law. Connie sneers at all this, resists the stiff overtures of her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law, and when Grandfather Scanlon buys the young family a huge house, she stubbornly refuses to move in.

This is basically a back-yard story. Maggie moves, through one muggy summer, from her back yard over to the back yard of her best friend, Debbie Malone, and then comes home. The girls hang out, sprawl on each other's beds, and begin to investigate a new development of split-level houses that an old Italian high school buddy of Connie's is helping to build. As the new houses take shape, other neighborhood kids begin to cluster there after dark. Some of them start fires. …

In Maggie's circumscribed world, she sees two older girls as icons, role models, perhaps. Both are very beautiful, but they possess radically different dispositions. Her own cousin Monica is mean as a snake, one of those natural bullying monsters who crop up in any family. Debbie Malone's older sister Helen is equally beautiful and extremely kind. But Debbie hates her sister, is furiously jealous of her, and begins to dislike Maggie herself because she likes Helen and because she thinks she's smart. (In fact, Maggie is smart.)

The novel is contrived in many ways. Parallels and “choices” crop up every time you turn a page. Connie and her daughter “grow up” in the same summer. One of the two older teen-age girls moves out of the safety of Kenwood and becomes an actress. The other one “has” to get married and begin the whole dreary round of reproduction over again. Those are the choices for girls.

This novel is mostly news from the morass. Plenty goes on in those back yards, those kitchens: Illicit sex. Arson. Romance. Yearning. Cruelty. When Grandfather Scanlon gets sick, all the power shifts dramatically; new alliances are formed, new enemies made, new sins committed.

Anna Quindlen is most notable here in her willingness to create absolutely horrible female characters—women and girls driven by all of the seven deadly sins: pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth. The two biggies here are covetousness and envy. An army of females remain at large, Quindlen suggests, ready to trip up any of its sisters who presume to excel at anything, from accomplishment to simple happiness. The determined ones—it goes without saying—do find their fair share of attention, happiness, accomplishment, love.

Karen Lehrman (review date 10 June 1991)

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SOURCE: Lehrman, Karen. “She the People.” New Republic 204, no. 23 (10 June 1991): 38-41.

[In the following review, Lehrman notes the limitations on Quindlen's brand of writing, both in her novel Object Lessons and in her columns.]

For nearly three years devoted readers turned weekly to Anna Quindlen's “Life in the 30's” column in “The Living Section” of The New York Times for updates on her life (lawyer husband, two sons, Victorian rowhouse in Hoboken), reflections on her past (Catholic schooling, mother's death), and her feelings about being female. Quindlen was the thirtysomething girl next door, chatting about the ordinary and often intimate details of her life. The column was continually praised for its honesty, ingenuity, and courage, and when it stopped running in 1988 her fans wrote letters expressing hurt, anger, betrayal.

But she needed a break; covering herself was “emotionally exhausting.” So she had another baby and wrote a novel. The Times, however, wanted Quindlen back, this time on its op-ed page, twice a week, discussing the issues of the day. The new column is called “Public & Private,” and though it doesn't seem to have yet developed the soap-operatic following of its predecessor, it is widely read. Once again Quindlen is perceived as a fresh voice, a counterpoint to the stuffy, often abstract political analysis of her colleagues on the page. Her reputation and her style rest, in fact, on a proud anti-elitism, on her supposed rapport with the thoughts and feelings of ordinary people.

Object Lessons, her first novel, is also about ordinary people, a large Irish Catholic family in suburban New York experiencing a collective identity crisis. The story revolves around Maggie, who is 12. During one summer in the late '60s, her grandfather dies, her mother almost has an affair, her bitchy cousin gets pregnant, her best friend deserts her for a cooler crowd, and a boy likes her. Quindlen's foray into fiction builds on the narrative talents she showed in her prepunditry days, when she was the youngest reporter and the first woman to write the Times's “About New York” column. In roughly a thousand words of detailed description, she managed to entice the reader into an often prosaic world, give it realistic contours, even impart some of the momentum of a story.

In the larger compass of a novel, however, Quindlen clearly has not figured out how to construct a fully imagined plot or to create credible characters. Object Lessons is very much a generic coming-of-age novel, for Maggie, for her family, and in a sense for the author as well. Caught between the cultures of an Irish grandfather who dotes on her and an Italian mother who ignores her, Maggie goes through the summer testing her loyalties to each, and finds that she's most comfortable (surprise!) just being herself. As Quindlen writes in her last line, Maggie learned that “the voice she was hearing [inside her head] was her own, for the first time in her life.”

It's an unwitting comment on one of the central problems of the novel. Quindlen struggles unsuccessfully for control over the voice of her protagonist, which fluctuates distractingly between improbable naïveté and world-weary cynicism. The difficulty is a familiar one in first novels that bear an autobiographical burden, as this one plainly does. Establishing imaginative distance from a younger self, however disguised, is not easy.

Her other characters rarely rise above caricatures: there's the gruff and authoritarian grandfather who calls his grandchildren “imbeciles,” and there are his mindlessly obedient sons and their insipid suburban housewives. The only intelligent, independent females (other than, presumably, Maggie) are Aunt Margaret, who is a nun, and Maggie's best friend's beautiful sister, whose own maturation is marked by the wearing of diaphanous clothes with minimal underwear. No wonder Maggie has trouble envisaging an adult life for herself. Quindlen offers an array of women whose lives have been circumscribed in one way or another by their “feminine” natures, and she can't seem to decide how much to celebrate and how much to condemn their plight. The turning point for Maggie's mother, for example, comes when she realizes that her ability to accept her fate as tireless mother of a large brood and to forgive her despotic father-in-law and his family for all their abuse—her ability, in short, to be passive, compassionate, and unselfish—made her “stronger” than her rebellious husband.

This apparent rationalization of often self-destructive, stereotypically female traits parallels the facile, melodramatic Ladies' Home Journal style of the book (he “kissed the frown from between her eyebrows”), which is clearly below Quindlen's standards. In fact, the most perplexing question the novel raises is, to whom is it supposed to appeal? Is Quindlen intentionally writing down, aiming at an audience of ordinary people (say, suburban housewives)?

Probably not. But condescension is not altogether foreign to Quindlen's writing. It's the danger lurking at the heart of her larger enterprise. To assume the role of literary and journalistic conduit for unsung Americans is to run the risk of a patronizing tone (especially when you're a star New York Times reporter with a dream job) and an oversimplifying perspective. In her “Life” columns, Quindlen suffered from the customary myopia that afflicts confessionals. Self-analysis parading as generational analysis can't help being presumptuous. In fact, it's a convention of the genre: in exchange for her commitment to her readers' mundane concerns. Quindlen earned the right to assume their commitment to hers.

The issue of Quindlen's tone and perspective has acquired a new dimension in her “Public & Private” columns, which will be read long after her novel has sunk from sight. Here the larger pretensions and problems become clearer. Her journalistic career has been based on the belief that the woman's voice—the voice of compassion, humanity, softness—is missing from newspapers in general. She has now been given the chance to make it heard not just in the confines of the “women's pages” (of which the “Living” section is really just a restyled version), but on the op-ed page, where “hard,” that is, male, analysis reigns. “Perhaps along with everything else, newspapers, magazines, television need to be the back fences for people, now that those fences are gone,” Quindlen told a gathering of fellow journalists in a lecture last year. “We used to come off as authority figures, and I think softening up can only make us more attractive.”

In her “Life” columns, Quindlen seemed at times to be trying to shock New York Times readers with her “femaleness,” her daring intimacy. Exhibitionism was a way of establishing the common woman's touch; no subject was too personal to discuss. (One column detailed the various aspects of her son's “secret life.”) She still sometimes flaunts her openness, but her larger objective now seems to be showing readers the “woman's” way of understanding political issues: emphasizing the personal more than the political; looking at the world emotionally, not rationally; making everything into an object lesson. “I've never been very good at looking at the big picture,” she once wrote. “It has been customary to take people's pain and lessen our own participation in it by turning it into an issue, not a collection of human beings.” And in another column she explained her modus operandi: “Whenever my response to an important subject is rational and completely cerebral, I know there is something wrong with it. … I have always been governed by my gut.”

Humanizing political issues, of course, is a worthy and often neglected pursuit, and Quindlen can be quite good at it. Indeed, the “Public & Private” pieces that most resemble her “New York” columns in their colorful reporting are a welcome departure from the often dry policy memoranda that accompany them on the page. One was a painful description of crack babies at a Bronx hospital, another was about an unusual project for disadvantaged kids run by nuns. Though Quindlen sometimes succumbs to mawkishness and can't resist a sermonizing note, these columns succeed because she doesn't try to wring a general point about the world from her discovery of one part of it: she arrives, she evokes a scene, she leaves.

Most of her columns, however, offer a lesson to be learned. Either Quindlen will generalize from a specific incident (elevating the private to the public), or she will take an important issue like the budget or the recession and tell us what ordinary people think, or more accurately, feel about it (reducing the public to the private). Quindlen's approach represents a repudiation of the notion of critical distance. She is a remorseless sentimentalist who ends up trivializing matters of considerable importance.

Consider a column from last October, which discussed a documentary made about the meatpackers' strike in Austin, Minnesota, in 1985. “The people at the Hormel plant believed in a certain kind of America,” Quindlen tells us. “They went on strike because the company wanted to cut wages to stay competitive.” Now their children live “on rice and kitchen-table speeches. … A grown man sits in front of [the] camera and says, tears running into the ruts of his face, ‘All I want to do is go to work.’” Quindlen then extrapolates from this scene of individual pain to the proclamation that the nation is in a depression. She doesn't know how “economists define a depression” so she looks the word up in Webster's, which says it is “‘a period of low economic activity marked esp. by unemployment’ as well as ‘a state of feeling sad.’ That covers it, I think.” Except that it doesn't begin to.

The reverence for ordinary people is an old device of New York columnists, and Quindlen may be, in her way, the first woman to join the company of Hamill, Breslin, McAlary, and the rest of the bartender-as-philosopher-king crowd. But her pose of ordinariness (who are these ordinary people, anyway?) is often harder to tolerate. Quindlen adduces ordinary people as proof for her pronouncements, as if it were obvious that they see the world as she does. In another moist complaint about the national economy, in which she deprived herself of the use of a dictionary, Quindlen wrote that a “recession committee” meets nearly every week in her supermarket. When “the bill is $20 higher than it was a year ago,” the women at the checkout counters silently declare a recession. The ironic tone is deceiving. It doesn't seem to matter to Quindlen that she gets rudimentary economics wrong: higher costs are the sign of inflation, not recession (a period of reduced economic activity that tends to hold prices down). What's important is that she get her point across: “Women experience the economy on what you might call a reality level. We buy bread.” Presumably men, who must be buying less delicate things like houses or college educations, experience the economy theoretically.

Even when a private individual actually finds herself in the middle of a public debate, Quindlen can't seem to strike a balance between empathy and analysis. Instead she self-consciously refuses to discuss the issues, abstract and practical, at stake in the debate, and assumes that bringing her sensibility to bear on the thoughts and the feelings of the central character is revelation enough. In a column about the Baby M case, she presents herself as the one honest witness who has been missing from the scene. Describing her visit with Mary Beth Whitehead-Gould, the biological mother, she writes: “It would be good for everyone in the business of passing judgment … to see her … staring out into a backyard full of toys, wondering whether her children will have to give up someone they love because once, in the white glare of the world court, their mother refused to do the same.”

By defining the post-feminist woman's voice in politics as one that “communicates” the problems of the world to us, and renouncing the assistance of law or logic, Quindlen has staked out a position in the feminist debate over the competing claims of gender equality and gender difference. She evidently wants to offer a more comprehensive woman's view than Ellen Goodman, who writes about so-called women's issues (child care, abortion, domesticity) but makes no pretensions to reach for anything grander or to offer a “feminine” analysis. And she evidently expects to be taken no less seriously as a political analyst than Meg Greenfield, whose commentary barely hints at gender.

The result, however, is a journalistic world in which women are continually constrained by their “femaleness.” This is reflected not only in the perspective of the columns, but in her style and choice of issues. Though Quindlen clearly set out to write about all political issues, most of her columns focus on “women's issues,” or on such problems as homelessness, child poverty, teen pregnancy. She routinely complains that only women care about these issues, but her treatment of them perpetuates the fallacy that they are only women's issues.

Her columns are riddled with ancient stereotypes, with housewives who raise the children, and do all the shopping and cooking and cleaning. And the style that she has adopted betrays her clichéd assumptions about these women. It also suggests that they are the audience she has in mind. She's fond of soap opera allusions (“Time has stopped. So do our hearts, each time a clinch on ‘One Life to Live’ is punctuated by the words ‘We interrupt this program to bring you a special report [about the war]’”), and her metaphors are typically homey, no matter the subject: “Most people agree that Saddam Hussein is pond scum and that he can't be permitted to take Kuwait as though it were the lunch money of the littlest kid in class.” Or, “The ground war took less time than it takes to get over the flu.”

Men in Quindlen's columns have not moved much beyond the platitudes of the '50s either. They're controlled by their bosses, they don't have time for the kids, they don't want to change diapers. (She once devoted a whole column to the idea that men need women around to eat right.) Unlike their female counterparts, however, these men are continually criticized. One “Life” column actually proclaimed that “Women are Just Better.” Another divided the adult male species into irresponsible yet fun Boyfriends and boring yet dutiful Husbands. A recent column compared men to “servile and salivating” dogs (while women are like “free and independent” cats).

In proclaiming the superiority of “female” qualities, Quindlen is very much in post-feminist vogue. It's unclear whether she believes that these virtues are genetically determined, or whether she accepts the prevailing psychological interpretation of other theorists, such as Carol Gilligan, who argue that an infant daughter's sexual identification with her mother fosters a sense of attachment to others. Both theories try to turn the tables on the traditional disparagement of these qualities, but they end up with the same retrograde implications. You can argue that the heartless public world needs enlightenment from the guardians of the domestic and the private sphere, but it's an argument that can easily backfire: if the realm of the home is so rich and so pure, why should women be eager to leave it? Hasn't the “superior” quality of selflessness often allowed women to become victims of exploitation and harassment by their employers (let alone batterings by their husbands)? If women do have a greater capacity for intimacy and relationships, why does it follow that this “strength” should be applied to all aspects of life, especially at the expense of rationality? Surely the world is a lot more complicated than the “web of relationships … sustained by a process of communication” that Gilligan has argued women believe it to be.

Quindlen seems dead to the fact that she is battening upon some of the hoariest and most demeaning images of women. The limits of her perspective were perhaps nowhere so clear as in her recent writing about the Gulf war, during which she presented herself not merely as Woman, but also as Mother. Here, too, she seemed taken by the fashionable theory that instructs us that mothers, because of their mothering, are our ideal teachers, uniquely qualified to tell us what's wrong with the world. Mothers know how to help the homeless, the minorities, the handicapped, the aged—all because they've had to rear children.

The centerpiece of motherhood politics is the issue of war and peace. Life givers can't be life takers, and so on. Quindlen's treatment of this issue exposes the inadequacies of maternal analysis. “War has a human face,” Quindlen wrote in January. “This is a good thing. It is a good thing to write a story about people as well as programs and policies because it makes us understand. … All of this war will be one little person after another.” Certainly it needs to be asked of a war whether it's worth a single human life. But that's hardly the end of thought on the matter. Looking at individual soldiers doesn't quite help us to understand the larger moral, historical, and political issues involved. War is of course a puerile, uncivilized way to resolve conflicts. But only rational analysis, which Quindlen avoids, can determine if a conflict can be solved without war.

Quindlen clearly believes that if pacific, life-affirming women ran the world, we would never get into these messes. That would be nice, but this logic (so to speak) cannot account for Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, and Golda Meir, none of whom flinched from the use of force. Were they coerced by patriarchical power structures? OK, then why do so many mothers—oozing “biophilia,” that essential maternal trait—fail to raise peace-loving sons? Perhaps that is the influence of the fathers. Or perhaps males are genetically programmed for violence. If so, how are our women leaders supposed to relate nonviolently to the men who might still run a country or two?

The women who lead states should earn their position not with some innate or learned peacefulness, but with an ability to discuss and decide difficult matters rationally. And the women who write political commentary should be read not because they have some gender-based talent for empathy, but because they have something to say. Our standard, arid political discourse would surely benefit from a certain amount of immersion in concrete human experience; but this is not the same as sentimentality, and it is not women's work. In her insistent presentation of herself as a type—“a woman columnist with children and an urban feminist sensibility,” as she puts it—Quindlen betrays her lack of trust in herself as a writer capable of detachment even from womanhood, as a thinking human being with a mind that can get beyond the body. “Perhaps it was a particularly female thing about me,” she once wrote, “but I did not feel qualified, when I was young, to be an individualist. I felt that by birth I was part of a group.” Maybe it's time that Quindlen, like Maggie, began to listen to her own voice. It might prove to be one of her more useful object lessons.

Judith Grossman (review date July 1991)

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SOURCE: Grossman, Judith. “Free Spirits.” Women's Review of Books 8, nos. 10-11 (July 1991): 40.

[In the following excerpt, Grossman lauds the authenticity of place in Quindlen's Object Lessons but criticizes the author's tendency to put everything in order at the end of the novel.]

The girl child, a heroine of strong character and candid speech, has been a presence in fiction ever since Jane Eyre and Alice in Wonderland. And these two first novels by Deirdre McNamer and by New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen demonstrate her perennial vitality, just at a moment when the psychological studies of Carol Gilligan and others are focusing on a peak in girls' self-confidence that precedes the clamping-down of social and cultural pressures at puberty. In the tradition of a sharing of subjects and insights between fiction and psychology, Rima in the Weeds and Object Lessons each celebrate a child's freedom—and each in a different way makes her confront the problem of the adult woman's confinement in a world of men.

Anna Quindlen's central character, thirteen-year-old Maggie Scanlon, asserts her autonomy by defining a territory separate from that of Connie, her mother: “The house belonged to Connie. Kenwood, with its scuffed baseball field and its narrow creek and its ring of tousled fields, was Maggie's home.” As much wilderness as this Westchester neighborhood allows, she claims for herself. The eldest child of a love-match between her beautiful Italian mother and rebellious Irish father, Maggie is an explorer of boundaries, ethnic as well as geographical. Her father's wealthy tribe of relatives looks down on her mother, but old John Scanlon, its tyrannical patriarch, has chosen Maggie as his favorite grandchild: he sets out both to charm her and to initiate her into his family power-games, thus driving mother and daughter even farther apart.

A crisis comes when the old man suffers a stroke, and in the last weeks of his life attempts to coerce Maggie's family into line, demanding that her father, Tommy, join the family business and that they all move into a house adjacent to his own. Connie, resisting the move and suspecting her husband may ultimately give way, starts a flirtation with a man from her old neighborhood who is teaching her how to drive. Meanwhile, caught in the middle, Maggie escapes at night to join a group of kids who play at arson in the new development nearby.

The narrative, though at times awkwardly slowed by flashbacks, is rich in circumstantial detail. Characters pick their way through an ethnically and economically hyper-conscious social minefield: Connie is shown learning to revise her best-occasion outfit from red satin and sweetheart neckline to navy linen sheath, under silent pressure from her cut-glass Irish sisters-in-law. Ruling them all is John Scanlon, deploying his armament of pronouncements: “Property values over there will land in the toilet. Sheenies to the right of you. Sheenies to the left of you.” There's also an authentic feel to the places in Maggie's world: her grandmother's mauve-brocade living room, and the old-fashioned plantings of hollyhocks and Rose of Sharon in the cemetery her grandfather maintains.

In the last 50 pages of the novel, however, Anna Quindlen succumbs to the temptation to set too much in order. A chain of suspicious coincidences leads to a dual discovery: Maggie's of her mother's boyfriend, Connie's of Maggie's participation in an episode of fire-starting. This brings everyone to their senses. Connie renews her commitment to her marriage (blissfully, thanks to the empowerment her new driver's license has given her); she then lies to the police to protect Maggie from the arson investigation, thus drawing her daughter back into the fold. Finally, the old tyrant's death releases a mood of general benignity, and Maggie and her mother celebrate their shared femininity as the latest family shotgun wedding goes forward.

Anna Quindlen and Alexander M. Santora (interview date 14 February 1992)

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SOURCE: Quindlen, Anna, and Alexander M. Santora. “Anna Quindlen: From the '60s to the '90s.” Commonweal 119, no. 3 (14 February 1992): 9-13.

[In the following interview, Quindlen discusses the role of a columnist, the relationship between her life and her work, and her relationship with the Catholic Church.]

[Santora]: Where did you grow up?

[Quindlen]: I was born in Philadelphia. My mother was from South Philadelphia, which was predominantly Italian; my father was from West Philadelphia, which was predominantly Irish. I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia called Drexel Hill.

What prompted you to come to Hoboken?

My husband is a New Jersey native. He went to Rutgers' Law School and knew he was going to practice law here and didn't like the idea of being a carpetbagger. I love New York City. I think it's the center of the universe. I would never live anywhere else if I had my druthers. This was the closest I could get to living in New York City. So that's how we wound up here. My two older children go to private school in Manhattan and their sister will follow them soon.

Why did you choose that?

Public school is not an option for us here because I don't think the public schools are good enough. There are some nice private schools in Hoboken. But I really felt that the private schools in Manhattan are just about the best schools I've ever visited in my life. We didn't want them to go to a real high pressure private school and St. Luke's [in Greenwich Village] is this wonderful sort of family atmosphere. The other thing is that there's a religious component to their education. It's an Episcopal school. But we can live with the fact that they add an extra sentence to the end of the “Our Father” every time they say it.

How about the Catholic schools here in Hoboken? You didn't think of them as being viable?


Do you think the children miss something in not going to school with the kids they play with?

To be honest with you, by the end of the school day, I want them home. They spend so much time at school that I want them with me those hours that they aren't at school. First of all, because I miss them and, second of all, because I intend to be an important influence on their characters. And because there are three of them, they tend to a do a lot of stuff together.

You structure your day so that there's always time to be with them?

At the end of the day. Our sitter always leaves at 5 o'clock but usually by that time I've gone into the city and picked them up.

Your column “Public & Private” changed your life, put you in the spotlight.

I already felt like I was in the spotlight from “Life in the 30s.” You do an op-ed page column and then people ask you to give speeches and ask for your opinion on whether we should send troops to the Persian Gulf. But with “Life in the 30s” I had told people about how my children were delivered, about what it was like when my mother was dying, about my father. It wasn't just that I was in the spotlight, it was like I was in the spotlight naked. … “Life in the 30s” was where I became public property.

One column you did on Bensonhurst, you really came down hard on Italians. There was one line in there—there's an Italian saying: It's a stupid man who makes his son better than he is. … Being Italian-American myself, I never heard this. I agree with you that there are some Italians who promote that kind of inbreeding, but I just wondered where you got that phrase from?

It's in the introduction to a book by Helen Barolini called The Dream Book, a collection of writing by Italian-Americans. But the fact of the matter is that I had heard things much like it growing up, which is one of the reasons why I used it. My experience growing up half the time in an Italian household with my grandparents was that it was profoundly anti-intellectual. There was a feeling—what good did books do you? The most important thing was family. Going out into a world where you would leave your family was a negative, unacceptable thing. I know that there are Italian households in which children are urged to better themselves and to move on and Mario Cuomo would be the first person to tell you about such a household. My experience of South Philadelphia and Bensonhurst is that it is not very much like [that]. There is this mindset: the best thing you could do for your son is get him a job in the same place where you're working so that he could live near you and you can keep your family unit intact.

What kind of resources do you use on a regular basis? Certain magazines?

I read six newspapers a day. The New York Times, the Daily News, Newsday, the New York Post, the Newark Star-Ledger, and the Jersey Journal. I read all the magazines I can get a hold of. I read Newsweek and Time, and People magazine every week. I look at U.S. Catholic and Commonweal all the time. I look at a whole mess of alumni magazines, most of which have become general interest magazines. I read a lot of books and pick up a lot of stuff from there. I talk to my friends constantly—most of whom are in the newspaper business. My husband, too.

Do you see yourself addressing any constituency or being a voice for anyone in particular?

No. I write for me. The one thing I would say is that I tend to write about what we have come, unfortunately, to call women's issues. Those are issues that directly affect my life and those are issues that are historically underreported. Sometimes people will say, well, do you feel like you're a women's columnist. No, I don't. But if I am that wouldn't bother me one bit. Fifty-one percent of the readers is pretty good.

You have a real eye for description.

I'm a novelist. I write a column like a novelist writes a column. When I was writing “Life in the 30s,” I was writing Object Lessons. The two of them were being worked on at the same time.

How much of Object Lessons is autobiographical?

Not much at all. The milieu is autobiographical. I'm a product of a marriage where dad was Irish and mom was Italian. I grew up in the suburbs at the tail end of the sixties. I'm Catholic. But none of the events in this book ever happened to anybody that I know.

Do you think there was something deeper going on in writing this kind of novel? Were you working through the Irish-Italian combination and the ethnic setting and finding yourself at a different point?

No. What I was probably doing at that level was illuminating a different kind of sixties. Not the sixties of sexual revolutions and Woodstock and antiwar demonstrations because that's not the sixties that I experienced. For me the sixties was the beginning of this staid sense of a fault line in all kinds of established institutions and extended families. Suddenly one of the uncles would move away. That's a change. Or in the church. I can't quite remember when it was that suddenly we didn't have to wear hats anymore. But that was a change in my life as cataclysmic as Woodstock. It suddenly seemed to me that a law that was so important that you would turn around in the car and go back home to fulfill it really didn't mean anything. Or didn't mean anything anymore. I was trying to pick up that sense of the time when the fault line started to appear. The fault line has now given us an entirely, radically different society than we had when I was growing up—in terms of the roles of women, the roles of the church, the roles of the community and of the family.

I'm not sure how to gauge your feelings about the church. Sometimes, you talk about the rules, as you just did, something as simple as not wearing a hat can be cataclysmic. On the other hand, you also take the liberal side of church issues. You write about the nuns who left because of the Vatican pressure on them—Barbara Ferraro and Patricia Hussey. You talk about Hunthausen and Curran and Untener. You certainly take the liberal end of the church spectrum.

Any of us has a nostalgia for certain forms and rituals with which we grew up. But that's a nostalgia for something that's over. I have no wish to resurrect any of those forms or rituals for my own sake or the sake of my children. There's no doubt that I am in the liberal mainstream of Catholicism and that the people in the church whom I have the most affinity for are the most liberal.

Where do you see the church going?

I don't know. I see very clearly in America now that there are two Catholic churches: the church of the people and the church of the hierarchy. The irony, it seems to me, is that the church of the people in some ways has never been stronger because the church of the people is a church of choice. It is a choice of people who don't feel compelled to go to church every Sunday. It is a church, to some large extent, of people my age who after turning away from the church, perhaps in their teens or twenties, have willingly come back to give their children something that they feel was important and useful. So, it's a freely embraced form in a way that I feel is much, much healthier than the old strictly obligatory church.

What's involved in that church of the people?

I think it's first of all people who rely on their own consciences to tell them the difference between right and wrong. It's people who feel that they've developed through their attendance at church and through their attention to the Old and New Testament, a personal relationship with Jesus and what his lesson can teach them about behaving towards all people in their lives. I think that there's an enormous chasm between the church of the hierarchy and the church of the people.

That church: Is it all done within the family? Is it passing something on to your children? Is it in relationship with other families? Does it have any contact with the institutional parish or church?

I think it depends on the parish and the church. Certainly I've seen thriving parishes where there's a holistic approach to families. Parishes that have child-care centers, parishes that have really excellent schools, parishes that have programs for adults that bring all of that together. So, there is education going on in the family and the church at a variety of different levels. I don't think that's possible for all parishes. First, there are many, many pastors who don't agree with that sort of approach. Many pastors think that child care for small children is best done at home by mothers, totally in opposition to the prevailing ethos or economic needs of people. Pastors who say individual conscience is not important: Here is your list of sins; if you disobey any of these tenets, you are in big trouble.

Do you come across people like that?

You can read hundreds of letters from them in my file drawer. The mail I get whenever I write about Catholicism, about abortion, about gay people is so full of hatred and judgment from people who inform me that they are Catholics as opposed to me, who is not a real Catholic. I can't figure out what Catholic church these people come from. It's the Catholic church that ends with Leviticus—people who have never heard: love one another as I have loved you; judge not that you not be judged.

Is this a sign of a pluralistic church?

When you get negative mail, you've got to remember that people in agreement with you tend to finish their cup of coffee and go off to work. It's when people are really in disagreement with you that they tend to sit down and compose a letter. But I'm sorry to say that some of the sentiments that I see in these letters, I see reflected in hierarchical responses. When a bishop denies the sacraments to an elected official because of their stand on a public matter, I despair.

Do you think it's possible for you to pass Catholicism on only because you've gone through the institutional phase as a child and that has given you the foundation to be able to pass it on? Short of that, there's a generation of Catholics who will never be the way you are.

Right. I know exactly what you're talking about and I think that's a real difficulty. I come to where I am from a bedrock of having to memorize the entire Baltimore Catechism—and still remember large chunks of it—and having to acquaint myself in full with the work of all four evangelists. That was a classic way in which you learn everything about a subject and discard that which you think is nonsense. There's a whole generation of Catholics growing up right now who will not learn everything about the church in any way, shape, or form approximating the way in which we learned. The thing for me is that I clearly was not educated as a classic Catholic school kid because I've had discussions with my husband and friends about the fact, for example, that I grew up with some sense that you were able to tell if something was a sin if you personally thought it was wrong or not. And I grew up with this idea that heaven might not be a place but might be a continuation of your brain waves after your body. … I was educated by very liberal nuns and priests, by Holy Child nuns who tend to be extremely well-educated and intellectually rigorous. Most of my priest connections were with Jesuits. I know that this is not exactly mainstream in a lot of ways. The first time I ever said this to my husband, he looked at me like I had lost my mind. He said, “No, no. You don't decide. There is a list of what the sins are. You don't get to decide. And brain waves. I'm sorry. I never heard about the brain waves.” A lot of what I am already passing on to my children is substantially different from a lot of what I think of was the rule for kids. The Holy Child nuns may want to disavow me. But I will not disavow them. They were marvelous teachers and incredible role models.

You wanted to get married in the church and at the time you weren't sure about having children. You mentioned how the priest saw your heart and later on baptized two of your children.

He baptized all of them.

What's your institutional connection? Did you shop around for a parish?

To some extent. When we first arrived here in Hoboken, we shopped around a little bit because the priest in the first church we visited was extremely conservative. He kept trying to involve me in courses on natural family planning. Every time he would approach on that level, the hair on the back of my neck would rise. I kept wanting to say to him, “Father, my parents used natural family planning which is why they had five children.” Eventually we settled on a parish here in Hoboken, but now we own a weekend house in Pennsylvania and that's where we go to church.

What do you think is the future of the church?

That's so complicated by so many different answers. … It will have a great deal to do with who the next few popes are. Who could have anticipated John XXIII and the incredible contribution he made to the church? I think John Paul II has had an enormous negative effect, negative on the church in America particularly.

In what way?

He has gone out of his way to appoint conservative bishops to very prominent and visible positions and to at least permit if not urge them to enter into public dialogue on the most divisive and, yet in some ways, most private social issues of the day. People say to me all the time, “Why do you have to write about the church? There have been Catholic columnists for years and they haven't written about the church.” The key difference is that the church has made it its business over the last fifteen years to enter aggressively into public dialogue on some of the most important issues affecting this country. When it does that, then people who are commenting on those issues have no choice but to write about the church.

Also people are no longer afraid of the church. I think people used to be afraid to write about the church. Non-Catholics were afraid to write about the church because they felt they didn't really understand it. It had this mysterious air about it. And Catholics were afraid to write about the church for fear of being seen as bad Catholics. I'm not afraid of being seen as a bad Catholic. First of all, because I know that I am a good Catholic. And second of all, because I know that I represent many, many Catholics out there who feel the same way that I do.

A recent issue of Spy magazine called you an avatar of common sense and Cardinal O'Connor a fake avatar of common sense. Is it just their whimsy or do you think that's how you're perceived?

I think that's how I am perceived.

That's a danger today that the hierarchy is not seen as authoritative in a wider sense. And you're seen as authoritative.

What does that tell you?

Well, people probably find that you resonate with their lives more than the hierarchy does.


Do you think that's happening more and more? Is that why the hierarchy is trying to pull back, trying to claim for itself once again authentic Catholic teaching because they feel there have been too many voices, such as theologians or commentators like yourself, that seem to be educating Catholics and they're afraid that they can't control that?

Well, I think that's part of it but I think more of it is the simple fact that they realize how many people are acting in opposition to the church doctrine that the hierarchy is intent on hammering home time after time after time. All they have to do is see the oversell about birth control.

Their attitude toward the most useful kind of dialogue just blows my mind. I don't understand how anybody can take issue with what Rembert Weakland did in Milwaukee—just saying let's bring people together to talk about this so I can listen to them. Part of what Archbishop Weakland was saying is look, I'm a man and I've never been married. I want to understand what it's like for these people. That seems to me so much in the spirit of Jesus that it almost doesn't need to be talked about and for him then to have to be unconsidered for an honorary degree by direction of the Vatican. I just don't get it.

On the issue of abortion, you come down on the prochoice side. Yet, you've also indicated that you agonize over the fact that people have to resort to this. You criticized the bishops for going the p.r. route and trying to …

No, I criticized the bishops for spending $5 million to go the p.r. route when people are starving in the streets in the United States. I mean that's one of the things that the church does that makes me crazy.

What about the other side, the prochoice side that spends much more—take the National Abortion Rights League. They commit a lot of money and resources to get their point across. Is it just that the church has been too behind the times in that area?

No, no. A group like NARAL was set up with one goal only: to see that abortion stays legal in the United States. And people give money to that organization for one reason only, and that's to see that abortion is legal in the United States. The Catholic church was not set up with that sole mission. Its primary mission seems to be to keep alive the teachings of Jesus. In its work with the poor and the disenfranchised the church does fabulously. No one really appreciates how much the church in New York does to house the homeless, to feed the hungry, to help the pregnant, to raise the babies. It really is far-and-away the best institution in handling those things in this city and, in my opinion, in this country. That light gets buried under the bushel of discussion about Satanism and rock music and exorcisms and condoms and things which, it seems to me, do not serve the primary mission. NARAL's primary mission is one thing. It seems to me that the Catholic church's primary mission is something quite different.

So, you don't take exception to the church's position on abortion?

I do. I take exception to the church's position on abortion.

In what way?

I understand why the church takes that position. Randall Terry [of Operation Rescue], who is not someone that I admire very much, says that if you believe that abortion is murder you have to treat it like murder. That's one of the few things Randall Terry's ever said that makes sense to me. I think the church has shut its eyes to any evidence to the contrary. Shut its eyes, as it so often does on the hierarchical level, to the grey area. Isn't it possible that this is neither nonlife nor life? That it is something in the middle. That it is, as Sandra Day O'Connor once called it, “potential life.” And that, therefore, we have to look at it in a different way than it is either one thing or the other. The prochoice movement, of which I am part, has failed to do that adequately too. I certainly think that the church has showed no inclination to do that. And they try to rewrite history. This whole idea that we were always opposed to abortion is just nonsense.

Do you find yourself closer to Mario Cuomo's understanding of abortion?


Cuomo says he's not [in favor of abortion] but he would keep it legal because there's no consensus. Would you say that you're closer to that?

No. I would keep it legal because I think sometimes it's the right thing to do. … I just think there are times when you weigh bringing a completely unwanted child into the world versus terminating what at that point is not a child but is a burgeoning life. I think there are sometimes when one gives way to the other. And I think the proper person to make that determination is the person who is carrying that burgeoning life in her body.

Let's suppose tomorrow you were appointed to the College of Cardinals.

Could you imagine?

What would you offer as a way for the church to teach on abortion?

I would suggest that all across the world the church do exactly what Archbishop Rembert Weakland did in Milwaukee. Not change its position, not even articulate its position. But sit back and listen so that it could understand why it seemed to be in opposition to so many of its people on this issue. To sit back and listen to some of the distress and the complaints and what has become antipathy. To try to understand that here are a group of unmarried men handing down dogma on an issue which will never touch them in any sort of intimate way—handing it down to people whom it touches every day. To bridge that gap it has to be more ears and less mouth. And then I would appoint Rembert Weakland archbishop of New York.

There was a study released in March [1991] about Catholic bashing. Columnists from the New York Times were mentioned. Do you think there is Catholic bashing in the press?


What do you see is happening?

If the cardinal of New York is the sort of self-effacing, low-profile type that Cardinal Terrence Cooke was, you don't find that much written in the press about the Catholic church. If he's the kind of guy that Cardinal O'Connor is—I mean, the idea that Cardinal O'Connor could take to the pulpit and say some of the things that he says and not think there's going to be public reportage of those things is preposterous.

Isn't that the same as the press giving Al Sharpton a pulpit, even though it's a street pulpit. If the press didn't cover O'Connor, you still think he'd be news?

He makes news. When you get up in the pulpit in St. Patrick's Cathedral and talk about how you're personally aware of priests performing exorcisms, you're making news. That's like saying would it be news if we didn't cover the president of the United States. Of course, it wouldn't. We make news on the basis of anybody saying anything we haven't heard before. O'Connor's constantly saying things we haven't heard before.

So, you don't think the press has a role in glorifying the kinds of things he says.

No, I think the press has historically covered the Archdiocese of New York because it is in New York in a more concerted way. Do I think that is why the pope placed the current occupant in that job? Absolutely, I have no doubt about it.

How long do you see yourself doing “Public & Private”?

I don't really know. I think columnists tend to outstay their welcome and start to do bad imitations of themselves. I never want to do that. But it really seems to me that the nineties is going to be a time when the issues that I care about most passionately are going to be at the forefront of American consciousness. I think child care and family planning and abortion and homelessness and some of those things are really going to be some of the most pivotal issues of the next ten years and I certainly feel I can go on writing about them forever.

Do you see Hoboken in your future, too?

I'm going to stay. The only other possibility is to move back to New York, which I can't afford, or to move out to the burbs, which I can't bear. Unless my husband manages to talk me into this after all these years, I'm going to stay put.

Terry Eastland (essay date June 1992)

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SOURCE: Eastland, Terry. “Booby Prize.” American Spectator 25, no. 6 (June 1992): 42-3.

[In the following essay, Eastland delineates the flaws in Quindlen's column writing.]

Now that Anna Quindlen of the New York Times has won herself a Pulitzer Prize for commentary, there's one more reason to grant her lifetime membership in the Current Wisdom section of this magazine. But an event that is good for The American Spectator is not necessarily good for the country or the press—or for women, whom I bring up because it is on their behalf that Quindlen claims to speak. As she said in a Commonweal interview this past February, having “51 percent of the readers is pretty good.”

The Pulitzer Prize is the one award journalists truly esteem among the many they bestow upon themselves. Quindlen's prize not only confirms the New York Times in its decision two years ago to relocate her from the “Living” section, where she wrote “Life in the 30s,” a weekly column about herself, to the op-ed page as a commentator on things “Public & Private.” It also sends a message to newspapers everywhere about what passes for excellence in opinion writing, especially when women are at the keyboard. No, make that only when Quindlen-like women are at the keyboard, for no male (with the possible exception of the Washington Post's Quindlen clone Andrew Ward, weirdly identified as a “former NPR commentator who lives in the West”) could write her gender-based column.

The Pulitzer board hailed Quindlen's winning submissions—on, among other things, abortion (for, although she's Roman Catholic), the Gulf War (against), Clarence Thomas (against), and Anita Hill (for)—as “compelling.” At the risk of being told that I “just don't understand,” I must say that that is one adjective that emphatically does not apply to her work. Criticism of Quindlen, as of any writer, however, should not turn upon gender, and in her case, not incidentally, it has not. Last June, in a review of Quindlen's first novel, Object Lessons, Karen Lehrman of the New Republic also examined her op-ed work in a critique evidently ignored by the Pulitzer board at Columbia University. “The women who write political commentary should be read not because they have some gender-based talent for empathy,” wrote Lehrman, “but because they have something to say.” And Anna Quindlen has very little to say.

Quindlen can write well, and not all of her columns are unsuitable for an op-ed page. She sometimes even does a little reporting, as when—to cite one of the columns included in her Pulitzer submission—she visited a homeless shelter established in the basement of a Queens church by a Dean Witter vice president. When she resists the urge to sermonize (which, alas, she did not do in the case of the man from Dean Witter), her style brings freshness to an often stale op-ed page. But even well-written, non-preachy columns on a homeless shelter or a day-care center or a project for disadvantaged kids are not enough to sustain a twice-a-week offering on the op-ed page of a leading newspaper. Of course, this ignores why she was really brought to the page. As Lehrman writes, “Her journalistic career has been based on the belief that the woman's voice—the voice of compassion, humanity, softness—is missing from newspapers in general.” Her op-ed presence is the Times's way of saying that this voice must be heard, particularly on political issues. The Pulitzer board has solemnly agreed.

Quindlen is much more than just another Ellen Goodman, who writes about many of the same things—the homeless, child care, domesticity, and abortion. For, unlike Quindlen, Goodman, a Pulitzer winner some years ago, does not pretend to speak for all women. At her best, Goodman gives reasons for her views, and never suggests that the merits of her arguments turn upon gender. Quindlen's approach is radically different, as in the Pulitzer entry written three days after Anita Hill's charges against Clarence Thomas were made public.

“Listen to us,” she began, the verb in the imperative mood, the “us” being women. “You will notice there is no please in that sentence,” she added for emphasis, before observing that “white men of the United States Senate” were sitting as the jury in this case. As to why Anita Hill had not come forward ten years earlier, why she had stayed on the job, why she was reluctant to confide in the Judiciary Committee, Quindlen wrote: “The women I know have had no difficulty imagining possible answers.” Given that she claims to speak for all women, Quindlen felt no need to advise which women it is she knows. Her women, of course, all sided with Hill.

The following paragraph from the Hill column further illustrates her self-referential smugness. “From time to time I am told of the oppression of the white male,” Quindlen wrote, “of how the movements to free minorities from prejudice have resulted in bias against the majority. Watching Judge Thomas's confirmation hearings, I wondered how any sane person could give this credence.” Again, she used the first person, but this time to trivialize such a major issue as racial quotas; apparently, she has never been “told” that a quota might limit the opportunities of women as well as men, or of minorities, depending upon its design.

Quindlen's work is a function not of reason but of the company she keeps. So much for the public world normally treated on op-ed pages. Quindlen is comfortable writing “Private & Public” because, in her solipsistic world, the two terms are interchangeable.

Quindlen thus finds it easy to exempt herself from thinking hard about complex issues. In her prize-winning column on the Gulf War, shortly before Saddam Hussein was evicted from Kuwait, the truth of the matter was in fact provided her by her peculiar sensibility. The Gulf crisis is not a “black-and-white, good-and-bad, win-and-lose” issue, she wrote, because this is “not that kind of world.” How knowing! Similarly, in a prize-winning column on Magic Johnson and AIDS, Quindlen did not grapple with what is true about a disease that for the most part is behaviorally induced and behaviorally preventable. Her public policy suggestions amounted to bashing those who rely “solely on chastity.” Her concluding sentiment is pure cant: she hoped we all “learn to deal with our national tragedy with as much dignity and determination as this good man [Johnson] brings to his personal one.” Indeed, Quindlen is awfully proud that her woman's way of treating political issues shuns reason. “Whenever my response to an important subject is rational and completely cerebral, I know there is something wrong with it,” she wrote in a column Lehrman quotes. “I have always been governed by my gut.”

In another of her Pulitzer-winners, Quindlen parenthetically remarked, self-referentially as usual, about how “a bunch of us left-liberal types are gathered around some take-out Chinese and a nicely decanted MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour.” Imagine the Pulitzer board giving an award to a right-wing columnist who talks this way. (For that matter, imagine the Pulitzer board recognizing—and the New York Times offering a regular column to—a Catholic who agreed with her church's teachings on issues such as abortion.) The point is that Quindlen's politics are about as liberal as they come. Consider her column linking abortion and Clarence Thomas. After calling abortion “the issue of our lives” (there she goes again, speaking for all women), she worried that Thomas wouldn't show much empathy with “a group of desperate women in a clinic waiting room.” She called on the judge to address the issue “with humanity,” although it was obviously not the humanity of the unborn she had in mind. Nor did she come to grips, as anyone writing about abortion in connection with the law must, with the constitutionality of Roe v. Wade. It apparently has never occurred to Quindlen that one may defend abortion rights, as she does, but also regard Roe as untenable, on the grounds that the Constitution does not provide for a right of privacy encompassing abortion. Quindlen is incapable of wrestling with serious moral and legal questions.

She is capable, however, of some peculiar paroxysms, such as this from the abortion column: “To watch as one of the most important issues of our times, an issue that affects the lives of millions of women intimately, is reduced to a political fandango in some cynical means-ends construct and a peevish annoyance for a Senator [Orrin Hatch] who will never have to think twice about who holds jurisdiction over the territory beneath his skin is worse than dispiriting.” Got it. Or this, from her AIDS column: “I don't want to hear any more about how condoms shouldn't be advertised on television and in the newspapers. I don't want to hear any more about the impropriety of clean-needle exchanges or the immorality of AIDS education in the schools.”

“I don't want” … “Listen to us.” This is a childish voice, petulant and insistent, and the Pulitzer-winning pride of the New York Times, 1992. Asked by Commonweal how long she would write “Public & Private,” Quindlen said that her sort of issues—child care, family planning and abortion, and homelessness—are “at the forefront of American consciousness” and that she thought she could “go on writing about them forever.” Great news for Current Wisdom!

Kenneth L. Woodward (review date 21 May 1993)

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SOURCE: Woodward, Kenneth L. “A Visit to Quindlenland.” Commonweal 120, no. 10 (21 May 1993): 17-19.

[In the following review, Woodward argues that Quindlen does not provide facts to support her assertions in the columns collected in Thinking Out Loud.]

The eighty-seven pieces collected [in Thinking Out Loud] are culled from Anna Quindlen's op-ed columns in the New York Times, written between 1990 and 1992, and for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for commentary last year. To these she has added not only an introduction about herself and her approach to column writing, but also prefaces to each of the book's four sections explaining what she's up to—in case, I suppose, we just don't get it.

In her introduction, Quindlen reflects on her life and good fortune as a journalist. She is up-front about why she thinks she was hired, at the age of twenty-four, by the Times. It was, she says, “because I was a woman.” She took her subsequent responsibilities as a columnist (first in the “Home” section) as mandate to practice her singular form of genderized journalism. She thinks the media substitutes for long-vanished “back fences.” But back fences were for gossip. The media is what we have because we no longer have public squares, or even cafes, places where citizens would meet to discuss issues of civic concern in a civilized manner. They were, withal, masculine venues of intellectual interchange. That's what Quindlen labors to overcome.

What makes her different from rival columnists, Quindlen says, is her “process” of thinking. Hence the title of this collection. “From the beginning,” she writes, “it seemed to me that the point [of her op-ed column, “Public and Private”] was not to make readers think like me.” That, she suggests, is what male columnists want—readers who will be persuaded by rational argument to accept their conclusions. Rather, “It was to make them think.”

But to think with “feeling.” The “standard operating procedure has been to bring the mind but not the heart to the table of public discourse,” she asserts. Apparently Quindlen is unaware of fellow Timesman, Anthony Lewis, who keeps a limp rein on his emotions, and she seems never to have slogged through the lachrymose outpourings of fellow Irishmen Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill. But a columnist has to be distinctive to survive and Quindlen does own a unique voice. She is, as her new collection amply demonstrates, journalism's preeminent practitioner of emotional correctness. She may not want us to think like her—but we damn well better learn to feel like her.

One of her favorite techniques is to sketch a scene or fix an image that prejudices the heart and clouds the mind. Here, for example, is a paragraph from “Erin Go Brawl,” a column about the refusal of the Ancient Order of Hibernians to permit gay and lesbian groups to promote their cause by marching in New York's Saint Patrick's Day Parade. Quindlen is all for inclusiveness, of course, but as always she argues from, not to, her conclusion:

Some characteristics of the Irish I know and love have always seemed to me contradictory. Hail fellows well met, without being met at all. The unknowable extroverts. It is no accident that some have taken to professions that give the illusion of being among the people while remaining essentially separate. Newspapermen, who are of events but outside them. Politicos, who stand apart in the crowd. Priests.

The writing is too cute, the inferences New York nasty. Quindlen doesn't come right out and say, celibacy forever separates priests from the rest of humankind and therefore they cannot feel the pain they are causing ordinary sexual folks like gays and lesbians. That would be making a statement, mounting an argument that invites rebuttal. She'd rather we feel the paragraph's implicit, emotional logic. The technique is familiar. It's what Henry Luce's Time did routinely when the editors wanted to advance an ideology: disarm the reader by structuring the narrative around damning details that substitute for real argument.

For Anna in Quindlenland there are only two kinds of people: victims and oppressors. She speaks, she tells us, for “the powerless”: the poor, homosexuals, African-Americans, the terminally ill, people with AIDS. And, of course, women. The list is hers, and though it is short by New York standards—it excludes most of the people who actually live and work there—it defines the limits of her prosaic, mired-in-the-sixties compassion. She bleeds easily, if selectively, like a stigmatist. The oppressors are mostly white males, especially the clergy of her own church, but the list extends to the Irish, the Italians, the Eastern Europeans—to any lower middle-class white or Hispanic group that reminds her of her own origins in a community (a white, mostly Catholic suburb of Philadelphia) whose religious and other values she now reviles.

As Karen Lehrman pointed out in the New Republic [June 10, 1991], Quindlen is patronizing toward those for whom she tries to speak and is emotionally incapable of writing honestly about men. As the Times's resident tutor in emotional correctness, she also manages to trivialize important issues—chiefly by ignoring inconvenient facts.

For instance, in a column comparing Mike Tyson and Magic Johnson as heroes for black kids, Quindlen denounces the loutish boxer as a rapacious womanizer and praises the basketball star for pushing condoms now that he is HIV-positive. But she is conveniently silent about Johnson's own acknowledged womanizing. Similarly, in all her columns on candidate Bill Clinton, she mentions Gennifer Flowers only once, dismissing the affair as an “adultery brouhaha.” Again, in her commentary on the New York Public School Board's uproar over multiculturalism and condom distribution, she never once mentions that it was the “ordinary people” in Queens and elsewhere who organized the grassroots campaign which ended in ousting Manhattan-supported schools chancellor Joseph Fernandez. And in all her fulminations against the Hibernians for not wanting gay and lesbian groups to march as such on Saint Paddy's day, she ignores the fact that ACT-UP first desecrated the Eucharist while disrupting a Mass at Saint Patrick's Cathedral, where the Hibernians have long functioned as putative protectors of the church. Predictably, Quindlen was immediately and wholly won over by Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings. But to read her, you would never know that a majority of women as well as men, according to polls published in her own newspaper, thought Thomas, not Hill, was telling the truth.

But of all the issues which Quindlen addresses, the one on which she is most piously dissembling is abortion. She has, she tells us, written more columns on this issue than on any other; a half dozen appear in this collection. “I have never sat down to write about abortion without feeling, at least for a moment, the complexities sweep over me like a fit of faintness,” she confides. If that is so, she hides her ambivalence well—as any woman columnist must if she wants to write about abortion for the New York Times. Only one principle—abortion-on-demand—is tolerable (indeed, she is even opposed to parental consent for minors, lest it harm an adolescent's “dignity”) though she never explains why she opts for this absolutist position. Neither does she let on that a majority of Americans want choice restricted mostly to the “hard cases,” that abortion has become Americans' preferred form of birth control after sterilization, or that most women who get abortions are repeaters. And never—no, never—does she mention that there are 1.6 million abortions a year.

Quindlen is especially fond of misrepresenting Kristin Luker's limited but important book, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, as saying that prolife men are really only trying to put their womenfolk back into the patriarchal home. Never does she report Luker's key finding that prochoice women are less religious than those who are prolife, or that the choicers regard abortion-on-demand as a necessary supply-side component in their career-minded “life project.” Indeed, that view seems central to Quindlen's own sense of self. She is, she tells us, the working mother of three “wanted” children, leaving the impression that only wanted children need be brought to term.

What emerges from this book is a veiled portrait of a clever Catholic school girl who found Enlightenment at Barnard College in the early seventies and never looked back, except in anger. She recalls a church “so often devoted to conformity and crowds” but the sum of her knowledge of things Catholic seems to have been arrested at the age of seventeen. Indeed, if Anna Quindlen didn't exist, Mary Gordon would have invented her.

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels (essay date 14 January 1994)

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SOURCE: Steinfels, Margaret O'Brien. “Drawing Lines: Quindlen, Kissling and Us.” Commonweal 121, no. 1 (14 January 1994): 5-6.

[In the following essay, Steinfels discusses Quindlen's relationship with the Catholic Church and Commonweal's coverage of her disagreements with the Church.]

Two years ago, Commonweal published an interview with Anna Quindlen. Alex Santora's friendly, almost pastoral, conversation with the New York Times's premiere woman columnist (February 14, 1992) led to accusations of soft-ball questions and several canceled subscriptions. Last spring we ran a review (May 21, 1993) by Kenneth Woodward of Ms. Quindlen's essays, Thinking Out Loud. Some readers took indecent pleasure in it and others found it mean. Several more cancellations followed.

“What is this love/hate relationship you guys have with Anna Quindlen?” asked one of our remaining readers.

Did “we guys” have a love/hate relationship with Anna Quindlen? Or did her fellow Catholics, our readers?

When she wrote her weekly “In the Thirties” column, Anna Quindlen had sensible and witty views of husbands, children, and the domestic environs; the one Times voice on family life not in thrall to Anna Freud or Planned Parenthood. She subsequently moved to her present perch, “Public and Private” on the op-ed page, where her somnambulant colleagues needed a dusting up. She did the job. I came to think of Anna Quindlen as a sister mouth.

But two columns a week take their toll; a certain predictability set in. Quindlen, nonetheless, remains an influential voice who, for better or worse, shapes a portion of the public discussion about Catholicism. And when she returned to the op-ed page from a leave of absence this last fall, there was a sprinkling of new ideas, a sense of new energy, even a hint that her brand of liberalism needed a little rethinking.

But then she went and wrote one of her totally predictable columns: she attacked the Catholic bishops for drawing a line (New York Times, November 18, 1993).

Step back a minute.

This past November, the administrative committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement saying that Catholics for a Free Choice, a Washington prochoice advocacy group, “has no affiliation, formal or otherwise, with the Catholic church.” It is “associated with the pro-abortion lobby in Washington …” and “can in no way speak for the Catholic church and its 59 million members in the United States.” The statement concludes: “Because of its opposition to the human rights of some of the most defenseless members of the human race, and because its purposes and activities deliberately contradict essential teachings of the Catholic faith, we state once again that Catholics for a Free Choice merits no recognition or support as a Catholic organization.”

Catholics for a Free Choice and its executive director, Frances Kissling, had been given a lot of sound-bite time during the pope's Denver visit, representing (as the media like to say) the vast majority of faithful but dissenting Catholics. The bishops objected; so do a lot of faithful, dissenting Catholics. Catholics for a Free Choice 'R' not us.

The bishops' statement is careful. It does not condemn CFFC nor excommunicate Kissling. The statement does not even say that CFFC had to stop using the word “Catholic” in its title. It simply says CFFC isn't an authentic Catholic organization. IBM could say as much about the knock-offs that pass for its hallmark personal computers.

But the statement isn't perfect either; it complains that the CFFC “shares an address and funding sources with the National Abortion Federation.” Sharing an address doesn't seem proof of much. But the sources of CFFC's funding do raise a legitimate question: Isn't the word “Catholic” in CFFC's title key to its successful fund-raising efforts with the Ford and MacArthur foundations? As Cardinal Roger Mahony comments on the letters page of the Times: “Without [the word Catholic in their title], they would be a tiny element in the pro-abortion lobby.”

But Anna Quindlen will have none of this. She sees the bishops' statement as “an unusual, almost unparalleled attack” on the CFFC. For her, Kissling's position on church teaching is legitimate because conscience is something individuals make up all by themselves. This is a widely held view in our society, but not a Catholic one. Quindlen goes on to characterize John Paul II's Veritatis splendor as “a learned explication of the concept that Catholics will know what's right when bishops tell them.” In fact, the pope had a good deal to say about conscience and how it relates to an objective moral order. But, as is her tendency, Quindlen refers only fleetingly to factual matters while sprinting to another point.

“Happily [the bishops' attack on dissidents] is not a crisis in many individual parishes. Priests still go about the business of inclusion, saying Mass alongside women deacons [!], placing Communion in the cupped hands of divorced parishioners, developing spiritual relationships.” There is a neat division of labor in this ecclesiology—parish priests are in charge of the Good News and the bishops in charge of the Bad.

Quindlen also informs us that the word Catholic is a description, not a registered trademark. And as Frances Kissling describes herself, “she fits the description. ‘I was baptized, I was confirmed,’ she says. ‘I am a Catholic woman.’”

“Catholic” may not be a registered trademark, regardless of the provisions about its use in Canon Law. But does saying “baptized, confirmed, Catholic woman” confer legitimacy in speaking on things Catholic?

A lot of unsavory and ill-informed people have been baptized, confirmed, even ordained in the Catholic church. We could name names. Somewhere along the line they forsook the description and stopped being authentically Catholic. This happens. Not everything we do or say is “Catholic,” even when Catholics do and say it. That seems to be all the bishops are saying about Catholics for a Free Choice.

Commonweal, of course, has had to face this question. The magazine does not blazon itself Catholic nor pretend to represent dissent, the laity, or any other large category. It is the independent effort of its editors, who are Roman Catholic lay people. No more, no less. But we too get invitations from the media. And Commonweal too, in its long history, has been labeled “not Catholic,” banned from seminaries by individual bishops, etc., etc.

Naturally the editors disagreed with these judgments, but not with the principle that bishops sometimes have to draw lines. And not because the journal's dissenting positions were products of “baptized, confirmed” writers. Ultimately those positions had to be shown to be faithful to the Catholic Christian tradition of understanding and living the Good News of Jesus Christ.

It is serious engagement with that tradition that is neglected by Catholics for a Free Choice—and by Anna Quindlen's defense of CFFC. CFFC makes occasional, highly selective bows to the tradition in its literature, and virtually no references, except querulous ones, in its many media forays. Quindlen unfortunately displays little knowledge of her tradition beyond, at best, that of a high school senior.

Dissent from church teaching, at least on some matters, is a long, noble, and battered, tradition in the Catholic church starting with Paul of Tarsus. Those who count themselves in that tradition must always attend to the possibility that at some point they are more dissenter than they are Catholic. In ages past, Catholics knew when they had crossed the line because they could have been burned at the stake. Now they are more apt to be rushed into print or taped for the evening news.

One of the prices the church pays for its past intolerance is reflexive rejection of its attempts to draw lines. If the bishops finally say that Catholics for a Free Choice is not an “authentic Catholic organization,” their judgment deserves at least a careful hearing and a reasoned response, even from Anna Quindlen.

Michael Dorris (review date 25 August 1994)

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SOURCE: Dorris, Michael. “Finding Truth as Death Looms.” Los Angeles Times (25 August 1994): E6.

[In the following review, Dorris lauds Quindlen's One True Thing for its interesting plot and satisfying ending.]

What a treat to read a good story told by a smart, if not always likable, narrator. We meet Ellen Gulden, the young woman at the heart of Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Anna Quindlen's provocative second novel [One True Thing] (the best-selling Object Lessons was her first), soon after she's graduated from Harvard and taken a magazine job in New York.

The brightest and eldest of three children, she has always seen herself and been seen by others as her English professor father's clone—literate, ironic, ambitious—rather than her homemaker mother's daughter. Her life to date has been one academic triumph after another, your basic 99 percentile on the SATs type-A personality. She's used to being in control, used to pleasant surprises, used to success.

And then her mother gets cancer. Her mother, Kate, whom Ellen has always regarded with affectionate condescension. Her mother the famous decorator of community Christmas trees. Her mother the why-buy-it-when-you-can-make-it craftsperson. Her mother the indestructible domestic.

Ellen complies with great resentment to her father's demand that she relocate back home to manage the illness, a move that is clearly equally as difficult for her mother. Ellen is the girl child—far less involvement is expected of her younger brothers. Telling herself that the situation is only temporary, for her mother's diagnosis is terminal, she does her duty.

As Quindlen deftly moves her story forward, the first jolt for Ellen—and for us—is the emergence of the real Kate Gulden. Forced to deal with her mother as a person and not just a parent, Ellen finds the 40-something Kate to be far more self-aware, complicated, and stoic than she ever suspected, a mature woman who has acquired wisdom that Ellen is intrigued to learn.

“The being happy,” her mother explains. “It's so much easier, to learn to love what you have instead of yearning always for what you're missing, or what you imagine you're missing. It's so much more peaceful.”

When mother and daughter form a book club consisting of only themselves, Kate reveals that she's always been bored and annoyed with Jane Austen's depiction of proper and contented female characters—the very type of woman Ellen has always imagined Kate to admire, to, in fact, be. “We'd made her simpler all her life, simpler than her real self,” Ellen explains to her brother. “We'd made her what we needed her to be. We'd made her ours, our one true thing.”

Almost simultaneously with drawing closer to Kate, Ellen's estimation of her father diminishes—first from what strikes her as the unfairness of his imposition on her time, and later because of what she regards as his avoidance of his husbandly responsibility.

The family dynamic changes, evolves, divides for the first time along gender lines. Ultimately Ellen must accept the fact that she has had less of a comprehension of the inherent compromises of her parents' union than she once imagined.

“No one knows what goes on inside a marriage,” she concludes. “I read that once; the aphorism ended ‘except for the two people who are in it.’ But I suspect that even that is not the truth, that even two people married to each other for many many years may have only passing similarities in their perceptions and their expectations. … But I know from experience that those least capable of truly assessing any marriage are the children who come out of it. We style them as we need them, to excuse our faults, to insulate ourselves from our own expendability or indispensability.”

And then, one terrible night, Kate dies.

It was a mercy, almost anyone would agree. Kate had ceased to be herself, was subsumed by suffering. Her death was for the best, it would appear—until an autopsy reveals that the cause was not natural but an overdose of painkillers. Ellen is falsely accused of euthanasia, and though she steadfastly denies committing the deed—more, she judges, from a lack of courage than from any moral or philosophical hesitations—she is arrested and charged with the crime.

In the process of awaiting an appearance before the grand jury, she becomes an unwilling poster girl for mercy killing, the unlikely catalyst for a raging national ethical debate, the public's champion for an act she didn't, in fact, perform … though she's sure she knows who did.

It would be unfair to the reader to reveal the outcome of this unfailingly interesting conundrum, except to say that Quindlen is far too complex a writer and a thinker to settle for any facile solutions. And all along the way to the novel's believable, satisfying conclusion, we are presented with insights and challenges to ponder, ideas that resonate concerning the nature and the method of change.

Finally, like Ellen herself, we leave One True Thing stimulated and challenged, more thoughtful than when we began.

Carolyn See (review date 23 September 1994)

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SOURCE: See, Carolyn. “A Lesson in Dying.” Washington Post (23 September 1994): F1.

[In the following review, See calls Quindlen's One True Thing “a hypnotically interesting novel, straight and plain, and very lovable.”]

People may get lost in the gruesome topicality of what happens in One True Thing. Don't many of us have parents who are looking peaked, acting as if they might die? And isn't their demand, “When I get too sick to take care of myself, I want you to be the one to give me the pills, the seductive combination of vodka, morphine, Nembutal etc., because there's no one else I can trust to do it”? My own mother has always been insistent on this point, and I answer sourly that she'd be having her cake and eating it too: She'd be mercifully released, and I'd get to spend the rest of my life in the slammer.

A dear friend of mine, when he thought he would be dying soon, suggested about once a day that he expected his daughters to take him out to the Mojave Desert, prop him up against some greasewood, hand him a gallon of Stolichnaya and a gallon of water then drive away, leaving him to dehydrate into a mummy. Fine for him, but what about those daughters of his? So it's easy to get caught up in what to do about aging parents, and the pros and cons of mercy killing. But the real question this novel poses is: Which is it better to be, good or smart? And, in a moderately perfect world, might it be possible to be both?

In the Gulden family, who live in the pretty college town of Langhorne, the lines are clearly drawn. George Gulden is chairman of the English department and one of those guys who—if you've got his number—you avoid like hives. If you don't have his number, you'll be up in his office past 10 o'clock at night performing the sexual act with him on an uncomfortable couch, thinking you're having a peak experience. George is all charm to the ladies, a “wonderful teacher,” an irresponsible person whose real label can't be written in a family paper. He sets great store by being smart, but he's second-rate down to his elbow patches. At some level he knows it, and that doesn't improve his disposition.

His two sons, Jeff and Brian, can't stand him. But one of the women he has totally charmed is his eldest child, Ellen, who writes award-winning essays in high school, gets to Harvard and then to a magazine job in New York, where she dwells in relief and joy. She's following in her father's footsteps and even more—she may be outstriding him.

The second good part about all this is that Ellen is not leading her mother's life, which the smart daughter has known all along is a mug's game. Kate never got to go to college and has devoted her life to her husband and children. She papered all the bedrooms by herself and papered matching picture frames as well. She found furniture, which she stripped and refinished. Her garden is lovely enough for House Beautiful. She's made her home a jewel of domesticity on an English professor's salary. She's made cookies and Halloween costumes and zucchini soup, and she's been a fountain of love to her family. She's put up with her husband's compulsive fooling around and never mentioned it. At age 46, she's beautiful, respected and loved by the whole town. She's good, but who cares? Her children bathe in her love but hardly notice it, any more than a fish notices water.

Then sweet Kate gets cancer. It's bad, in her liver and ovaries. Professor Gulden orders Ellen to give up her good job and come home to take care of her mother. There's no way on earth he's going to do it, and the boys have to go off to college. Kate protests bitterly. She's worked so hard to put together her own life! And besides, something about her mother gives her the creeps. Ellen feels betrayed. After all the prizes and honors and attention, is this what her life is going to end up being?

But Kate very shyly suggests that they set themselves a reading project: to take a look again at Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, Anna Karenina. She wants to be able to talk to her smart daughter, and offers some gutsy, variant readings on the classics. It follows that in the next several months Ellen develops a cautious respect for her mother's mind, a mild envy for her depth of character—the way she has made love and goodness her currency and has become, in that currency, very wealthy indeed.

But the cancer is relentless, and in another couple of months Kate is begging Ellen to kill her. Dad is absolutely unavailable for comment, holed up in his office with compliant students. The misery becomes unbearable. Kate dies from a heavy overdose of morphine, and Ellen is arrested for committing a mercy killing.

All this comes in Part 1. There's a lot more here, which deals with medical questions and the assignment of roles in any given family, and what is really “bad,” what is really “good.” But like all excellent novels, One True Thing asks us one more time: How should we be spending our lives? How should we live? Is it worth the effort to be smart? Or successful? Or good? What do those things even mean? Whom should we choose to love? And is that a smart or good thing to do? This is a hypnotically interesting novel, straight and plain, and very lovable.

Rosanne Daryl Thomas (review date 25 September 1994)

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SOURCE: Thomas, Rosanne Daryl. “Tender Is the Heart.” Chicago Tribune Books (25 September 1994): 3.

[In the following review, Thomas asserts that Quindlen fails to deliver in the second half of One True Thing, but shows signs of becoming a first-rate novelist.]

In One True Thing, Anna Quindlen's second novel and the book that inspired its author to give up her job as a nationally syndicated New York Times columnist and devote herself to the writing of fiction, Ellen Gulden is relatively fresh out of Harvard and sure of what she wants, with the cocksureness of those whom life has not yet tested. Ellen has a plum magazine job, a fast-track law student for a boyfriend and an apartment in Manhattan. She lives a train ride, and worlds, away from the suffocating intimacy of her hometown and likes it that way.

Ellen considers herself her father's daughter and absolutely not her mother's. Father is alluringly distant, a professor of English who seems to have an opinion and a literary reference for most occasions. He demands a brilliant performance and gets one. Mama lives through the good she does for others. She is a wholehearted homemaker who “drove us to swimming lessons and taught us to string stale cranberries for the Christmas tree and scolded us for using vulgar language and laughed at our knock-knock jokes.” Like many bright, ambitious young women, when she thinks of living a life like Mama's, Ellen smells, tastes and fears an intolerable trap.

Then Mama gets rapidly advancing incurable cancer. Ellen's father won't tolerate the thought of his wife in the care of strangers. Nor will he sacrifice any part of his professional life to care for his wife in her last months. He expects Ellen to do it, and so she does.

“I think,” explains Ellen, “that the people I know now believe I went home to take care of my mother because I loved her. … But the truth is that I felt I had no choice. I felt I had to be what my father wanted me to be, even if it was something so unlike the other Ellen he'd cultivated and tutored for all those years, even if it meant that I had to go from his brightest student to his demi-wife. I had to prove that, unlike Pound and Fitzgerald, I had a heart.”

Anna Quindlen has plenty of heart—more than most newspaper essayists with whom I am familiar. In her columns, she has responded to the sorrows and injustices of life, maintaining an elegant balance between her analytical mind and her tender humanity.

But when Quindlen responded as a columnist, she was limited to the existing world. Her job gave her room to understand, interpret, protest or endorse conditions that maybe were excruciating, exhilarating, whatever, but that in every case already were and could not be tidied up, no matter how she or we might wish it.

Now a journalist is considered a bad journalist if she is caught making things up, while a fiction writer, by definition, is required to do just that—invent, imagine, create a world and people it. Bluntly put, the fiction writer must play God. And if she's really good, she not only makes things up, but she also makes them true—which is why a good novelist must possess a mixture of godlike love and ruthlessness. But Quindlen, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her newspaper columns, wimps out in One True Thing, wishfully tidying up the messy world at moments when her story virtually begs her to steel herself and do the opposite.

There is only one character in the novel who absolutely cannot be spared. That is Kate Gulden, Ellen's dying mother. If she doesn't die, there's no book. And that fact seems to free Quindlen from her persistent urge to make life kinder than it is. In the half of the novel that deals with Ellen's growing sense of the person her dying mother is and was, Quindlen is virtually forced to be as strong a novelist as she is a columnist.

Within the painful confines of the well-kept house that Ellen fled and the life that Ellen never wanted to lead, she tends for her mother and struggles with herself, her loves, her resentments. As Kate Gulden gently and tactfully illuminates the meaning of the choices and compromises she has made, Ellen is humbled a bit. For the first time in her life, she angrily confronts her father's limitations, which include a weakness for other women. She endures the drudgery of housework, tends the garden, gains weight. Kate passes on her quiet wisdom, and Ellen begins to catch up and catch on.

In the first half of One True Thing, Quindlen makes the commingling of love and pain between mother and daughter and the end of Ellen's intellectual romance with her father feel utterly compelling and true. One only wishes that the other half of the book had this kind of quality and integrity.

In the prologue to the novel, Quindlen lets us know that Ellen Gulden is eventually to spend some time in jail accused of mercy killing. Now to start a book this way is virtually to promise the reader that meaningful drama and suspense are to come; and to fail to deliver on that promise is to betray the reader. And Quindlen lets us down. First, I don't think she needed the mercy killing “hook” at all; second, I believe that One True Thing would have been a truer book without it. And that, in a way, makes matters worse. Having introduced a subject as potent as mercy killing, Quindlen ought to have had the courage to take her characters straight through hell so that the reader could live the journey. She didn't.

I suspect that the problem is Quindlen's big heart. Having created characters she loves, she gives them the fictional equivalent of bulletproof vests, protecting them from the consequences of their weaknesses and the full and often unjust cruelty of both man and fate. And by indulgently protecting her characters, and in the process sparing herself the pain an author must suffer in the course of playing God, Quindlen denies the reader the chance to respond passionately to her fiction. She leads us right to the brink, then skitters away into a falsely comforting neutrality. No one is really guilty, no one pays too high a price and everyone is sort of OK after all. But this kind of “niceness” is murder on dramatic fiction, and it isn't a true thing, besides.

If I weren't convinced that Anna Quindlen could be a first-rate novelist, her dodging of the hard stuff in One True Thing wouldn't be so maddening. I truly hope that her next book will deliver what it promises.

Suzanne L. MacLachlan (review date 27 October 1994)

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SOURCE: MacLachlan, Suzanne L. “A Mother's Struggle, A Daughter's Sacrifice.” Christian Science Monitor 86, no. 234 (27 October 1994): 13.

[In the following review, MacLachlan concludes that the second half of Quindlen's One True Thing falters and that the author is best when she focuses on the relationship between the mother and daughter.]

About the time that her second novel, One True Thing, was published, Anna Quindlen announced she was giving up her job as a nationally syndicated columnist for the New York Times to devote herself full time to fiction writing. Quindlen is expected to leave her job at the end of the year, and though her columns will undoubtedly be missed, fiction readers have reason to celebrate.

As a columnist, Quindlen is known for tackling tough, often deeply personal topics with compassion and insight. If One True Thing is any indication, we can expect the same of her future novels.

One True Thing is, at its core, the story of a mother and daughter. The daughter, the novel's narrator, is 24-year-old Ellen Gulden, smart, overly ambitious, always trying to live up to her English professor father's expectations, and a bit scornful of her old-fashioned mother.

The mother is Kate Gulden, a homemaker, family peacemaker, and nurturer, who is dying of cancer. At her father's command, Ellen gives up her apartment and promising magazine job in New York to come home and care for her mother.

Years later, looking back, Ellen muses: “I think that the people I know now believe I went home to take care of my mother because I loved her. And sometimes I believe that was in my heart without my knowing it. But the truth is that I felt I had no choice. I felt I had to be what my father wanted me to be, even if it was something so unlike the other Ellen he'd cultivated and tutored for all those years. …”

The beauty of this book is its long first section, when Kate and Ellen take tentative steps toward establishing a relationship. They spend their days reading together, discussing their past, and trying to live “normally,” though both privately recognize that nothing will ever be normal again. During her time at home, Ellen realizes neither of her parents are who she thought they were: “I felt as though I was losing both my parents at the same moment, although I did not feel in the slightest like a child. I saw them with the cold eye of the adult now.”

Quindlen goes to great lengths not to sugarcoat this blossoming relationship between mother and daughter. Kate often cries silently on the couch and later begins to lash out in anger at her family. Ellen, feeling as though she is sinking beneath the weight of a life she once gave little thought to, grows increasingly bitter over her father's distance and the fact that she's doing a job he should be doing. “Do you grieve? Do you care? Do you ever cry? And how did you let her get to this point in the first place?” she asks him.

The shorter second section of One True Thing falters somewhat. After Kate's death, Ellen is accused of helping her die in a so-called mercy killing. She spends a night in jail and later testifies before a grand jury. The townspeople, convinced Ellen is guilty, all form opinions about whether or not the killing was justified. Few people other than her brother and a sympathetic elementary school teacher believe in her innocence.

The action and suspense are heightened in this section, but the novel also moves from a believable scenario to one much less so. Perhaps the author felt she needed a hot-button issue to justify her book. But Quindlen is at her best when she sticks to the novel's central theme—what it means to have and to be a mother.

James Bowman (review date February 1995)

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SOURCE: Bowman, James. “A Rose for Anna.” New Criterion 13, no. 6 (February 1995): 58-62.

[In the following review, Bowman provides a scathing review of Quindlen's last column in the New York Times.]

She disappeared in the dead of winter. Just when we needed her most, she was gone. In the month after the election she showed what she might have made of the Newt World Order, had she been spared to us. She prayed for the health of Al Gore (why not Bill Clinton, I wonder?) lest, catastrophe having overtaken the president and vice president, the country's chief magistracy should devolve on Mr. Gingrich, whom she characterized as going “straight for the neck flesh, calling names, talking trash, practicing his patented brand of ‘I'm-O.K.-You're-Scum’ attack politics.” But even as she herself was calling names at the neck flesh, the mood turned elegiac. The true significance of November 8th, she opined, was that “this country lost its two most compelling and charismatic political figures when Mario Cuomo was rejected by the voters of New York and Ann Richards by those in Texas.”

Heavy losses, no doubt, but not nearly so heavy as the loss of Anna Quindlen from the op-ed page of The New York Times. We the connoisseurs of journalistic bibblebabble and huftymagufty can all agree that the day that Anna Q retired to pursue a career in writing fiction was a dark cold day. The connoisseurs of fiction can probably agree too. But she left us with a true gem of its kind: a masterpiece of malarkey and a paragon of poppycock. Her valedictory column, which she informed us she had long been meaning to write, was such a magnificent specimen of all that we have come to expect of her over the years that I cannot forbear from commenting on it in detail.

Entitled “Every Day, Angels,” it begins with an obituary which ran in the Times back in October 1992 of one Harold Brown, Sr., a businessman who also established a homeless shelter in his local church. What her connection with Mr. Brown is is not made clear, but we learn that he is being plucked from obscurity more than two years after his death in order to illustrate Miss Quindlen's contention that “the great issues of the day,” on which she has ostensibly been commenting for five years, are, “at base,” but one issue, and that the same as it was in John the Baptist's time. Also the same as it was in Charles Dickens's time and Anne Frank's time. All three in this unlikely trio, thinks Anna, would have agreed that greedy and selfish people (you know who you are, Newt Gingrich!) are the only “great issue” worth bothering about.

Among some trifling prophecies and rather overheated predictions of wrath to come, John the Baptist said: “He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none.” Very much in the same vein, it would seem, Charles Dickens had the ghost of Jacob Marley instruct his erstwhile partner, Ebenezer Scrooge, that “the common welfare” of mankind was his business—i.e., not making money for himself. Both John the B and Dickens are associated with Christmas, and it was in what used to be known as the Christmas season that Miss Quindlen bade her readers farewell. But so as to avoid too sectarian a note in her holiday seasonal message, she included as another latter-day equivalent of the Baptist's message Anne Frank's faith that “In spite of everything … people are really good at heart.” Quindlen erat demonstrandum.

Now the point of Mr. Brown's presence in this august company is to show that even businessmen are capable of charity and big-heartedness—and of inspiring our Anna to new heights of perfervid prose:

Like Ebenezer Scrooge, I've walked the streets, seen goodness in the dark places, and shed the frosty rime that's said to come with my profession. I've visited the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen in Manhattan where every day volunteers feed 1,000 hungry people, and the York Street Project in Jersey City, home and school alike for women looking for a second chance. I've been to schools where teachers bring imagination and intellect to life, and hospitals where the nurses bring comfort and joy.

Of all the people who have ever walked the streets and seen goodness in dark places, Ebenezer Scrooge would seem to be the least likely example, but even less likely is his having “shed the frosty rime that's said to come with my profession.” As well to say “shed the wet water that's said to come” with her profession. What “profession” does she share with Scrooge, and who ever was fool enough to say that “frosty rime” would “come with” it? What would it mean if frosty rime did come with it? Are the schools where teachers bring imagination and intellect to life and the hospitals where nurses bring comfort and joy special schools and hospitals, to be distinguished from the general run of the things by their life and joy? Or are they just any old schools and hospitals where, as in Scrooge's “dark places,” the life and joy can be found only if, like Anna, you know where to look?

We do not know. We can only submit to be swept along with our ignorance on the torrent of Anna's eloquence.

This morning I could visit Tavern on the Green, where the Robin Hood Foundation is having its annual breakfast. Founded by three anti-Marleys, Wall Street traders who cleaned up big time in the 80's and decided to invest in empathy, the foundation gives money to groups that shelter, feed and fight for the city's poor. Leaders of those groups will speak of their work, and the who's who audience will, as always, be dazzled by the simple spectacle of unabashed humanity.

What makes the Wall Street traders anti-Marleys? Marley (actually his ghost) was the greedy businessman who repented and urged charity on Scrooge. Are these charitable businessmen anti-repentance? Anti-charity? Anti-ghost? And what does it mean to “invest in empathy”? What sort of return do they expect on that particular investment, I wonder? Is it true to say that a “who's who audience” is always “dazzled” by “unabashed humanity”? Even most of the time? I suppose they might be if it were suddenly revealed to them that shares in empathy were likely to pay off, but surely that can't happen every day? And why is the humanity unabashed? Why should it be abashed in the first place? If it were, would it really be humanity? Never mind. Anna goes on:

They do dazzle, the everyday angels, just as the angel did in the Christmas story, scaring the wits out of the shepherds. But the angel said “Fear not,” and that's what I've learned from its contemporary counterparts—the rape counselors, the good cops, the nuns, the librarians. Life will be hard, politics will be mean, money will be scarce, bluster will be plentiful. Yet somehow good will be done.

As it happens, we can well believe that Anna Quindlen goes around in a perpetual state of dazzlement, but it is hard to imagine that it is because she spends so much time with rape counselors and good cops (note the dark hint that a lot more cops than nuns or librarians are maybe not so good). It's one thing when the angels come to tell you that an event unique in all human history has happened. On such an occasion they may be expected to dazzle a bit. Also to make those who observe them afraid—hence the reassurance, “Fear not.” Anna's angels, by contrast, are “everyday” ones, so that presumably people like her cannot perform the most ordinary tasks without what to anyone else would be the annoyance of their dazzle.

The injunction to “Fear not” appears not to refer the terrifying quality of the angels themselves but to the nasty things that they are there to protect us from. These are warm and cuddly rather than fearsome angels. They might not do so well as the biblical ones at expressing majesty and awe, should they ever be called upon to do so, but Anna likes them better this way, even though their reassurance is no more than the vague, impersonal “somehow good will be done.” As Horatio might have said to Hamlet, “There needs no angel, my lord, come from heaven to tell us this.” Life may be hard, politics mean, money scarce, and bluster plentiful for a great many people in the world, but only the last is true in Anna's case. She sounds just the tiniest bit glib in promising everybody else this “somehow” good.

I've been lucky [she goes on] to be in this business at a time that was infinitely interesting, when women were more welcome. I've been lucky to work at a newspaper that stands for the very best that newspapers can provide, lucky to have had a conversation in print with millions of familiar strangers. I've gone places I never would have gone, met people I never would have met.

Really? Infinitely interesting? The more you think about that qualifier, they more you wonder what it is there for. Perhaps she only means that they are exhaustively interesting, that she is so interested in them that she has no interest left over for other times and places. But is this a recommendation of the times (or the Times) or a derogation from the quality of her own intellect? We must suppose that the people who find their own times most interesting—if still less than infinitely so—are those who have the least sense of historical perspective. Is it then mere coincidence that Anna is deprecating precisely that perspective in her demure feminist reference to the less than exemplary history of the Times from a feminist point of view? More welcome than what? Well, we won't go into that.

In her haste to get off the subject, however, she slips into an egregious lie. I refer not to the alleged fact that The New York Times “stands for the very best that newspapers can provide,” though some would pounce on that one immediately, but to her alleged “conversation in print with millions of familiar strangers.” If she has ever had a conversation in print it has been with one or two familiar strangers. Millions of them would take up a great many volumes of print, and, prolific though Anna has been, she has not been that prolific. That this lie is so open and shameless suggests to me that she really means not that she has had conversations in print but that she has preached in print to the millions of familiar strangers—as well as one or two strange familiars and at least some thousands of those, like me, whose wish she has made it to be stranger still. She just thought it sounded better to call her preaching a conversation—as, indeed it does—though that does not make it a conversation.

The greatest of them [that is the people she would never otherwise have met] are these: Ellen Baxter, Al Cohall, Steven McDonald, all the others—you know who you are.

I know who I am anyway!

You stand in opposition to a spiritual isolationism that makes icicles of our insides and a hard little lump of coal of our hearts. “Karma is a boomerang,” it says on the tip cup at a Village coffee bar. If we do not reach out, it is we who will be alone.

Why isolationism rather than isolation? If the rest of our insides are icicles, how did our hearts get to be coal, hard or soft? Not exactly an arresting picture there. But what the imagery lacks in imaginative force, it makes up in triteness. At least, Anna is usually original, as she proves in her introduction of the tip cup at a Village coffee bar. Like the late Mr. Brown or the everyday angels or the familiar strangers, the tip cup is so homely a presence in Anna Quindlen's moral gallery that we wonder what it is doing there. Why are these things on show, we ask—I mean rather than some other things? Wherefore do we wrap the gentleman in our more rawer breath? And how is our sense of the profundity of the message that “Karma is a boomerang” enhanced by the knowledge that it appears on a tip cup?

It would be nice to know, because otherwise the message seems to be little more than a tautology—like saying that the flu will knock you out. Anyone who knows what karma is will know of its boomerang-like qualities; anyone who does not will be no wiser for the instruction that it is like a boomerang. Yet in a peculiarly Quindlenian way, the motto sort of fits with the equally meaningless principle which follows it—“If we do not reach out, it is we who will be alone.” This is very possibly true, but if we do not reach out, is it not because we want to be alone?

The great issues [Anna begins her peroration] are the same as they were when 15-year old Anne Frank, three weeks shy of discovery in her attic hideaway, less than a year from death in Bergen-Belsen, wrote in her shabby plaid diary: “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

Can there ever have been a more inappropriate use of the colloquial “shy” to mean “short”? But dragging in Anne Frank here in a column which purports to be about everyday angels sounds like a desperate move. It is not helped, either, by the following angelic greeting:

Fear not; Anne was right. The heavenly hosts prove it every day, in Coney Island, in Washington Heights, in Flushing, with cots, with comfort, with boxes of tissues on their desks.

There is some confusion as to who is the angel here. It is ostensibly the heavenly hosts with the cots and the boxes of tissues on their desks, but it is Anna who, angel-like, proclaims “Fear not.” Or is it Anne Frank, under whose aegis the proclamation is made but who might have been less inclined than Anna to dismiss fearful things or to be much reassured by the existence of miscellaneous facilitators and counselors? This confusion is deliberate. Really, Anna thinks, everybody is an angel—which is, not accidentally, a way of trivializing the angelic. The message of the heavenly host to the shepherds is part of the irrelevant past which has been marginalized by the “infinitely interesting” present. What, after all, is the news that Christ the Savior is born compared to the news that some middle-aged divorcée in a rape crisis center knows exactly how one feels?

I leave you with good tidings of great joy [Anna concludes modestly]: Those who shun the prevailing winds of cynicism and anomie can truly fly.

Once again: a lie. They cannot truly fly, and if they could, how could they shun the prevailing winds? One can imagine a wind of cynicism, which is spoken, but a wind of anomie diminishes the force of the word. Anyway, anomie is less like a prevailing wind than a hurricane. But can either hurricanes or prevailing winds be shunned, whether we fly or not? Well, with Anna all things are possible. But why would the shunners want to fly in the first place? Are they not the same as those who man the soup kitchens? Is not their business as down to earth as Scrooge's? Where would they want to fly to? What would they want to fly for?

I guess that such flight is for the sheer thrill of it—that flying is a metaphor for the state of spiritual exaltation which must be well known to Anna Quindlen herself when, as she so often is, she is swept away by the force of her own windy rhetoric. My own suspicion is that, Anna's airborne do-gooders notwithstanding, we are no more likely to be buzzed by low-flying angels than we ever were. But I also suspect that that is the very reason that she feels so comfortable arrogating to herself the privilege of repeating the angelic message for our times and adapting it to her own purposes.

Alas, she will do so no more, at least not in the Times. She has become her admirers, as Auden said of Yeats, and her words “are modified in the guts of the living.” Thus it was that in the post-Christmas doldrums there appeared among the various stock-takings and philosophical reflections brought in to fill the hole that Anna had left on the op-ed page unmistakable traces of her influence. Frederick Buechner, for instance, an unlikely combination of Presbyterian minister and novelist, was of the opinion that “It's not so much the terrible things”—by which he means Bosnia, Haiti, AIDS, homelessness, crime, “and the rest of it”—which are “decimating” us as it is our “obsession” with or “addiction” to the news of them.

“Decimating,” you might think, is strong language, but none too strong to express the Rev's view of “the likes of” Rush Limbaugh and the Christian Right. They, it seems, are constantly being rude to Mr. Clinton who, the Reverend Mr. Buechner believes, is “arguably the most promising leader we have had for years.” Arguably? Isn't it argument rather than decimation he is getting from Mr. Limbaugh and the Christian Right? Not as he sees it. The very word “Christian,” he says, “no longer conjures up the image of Christ but rather the narrow, bigoted, authoritarian political faction that calls itself after him.” Presumably he is not talking about the Presbyterian church. As a representative of that august body, the Rev's alternative to the n., b., a.p.f. which has usurped the name of Christian goes like this:

I suspect that God will not kick the world to pieces, if only because if that was on His mind, He would probably have done something about it long since. But those like me who believe in God spend a lot of time asking themselves what He is doing in the world instead—this world where He is so often most conspicuous by what seems like his [sic] absence. The other day I was handed a card with these words: “Prayer does not change things. Prayer changes people. People change things.” If one substitutes “God” for “prayer” and can overcome a distaste for slogans, maybe that comes as close to suggesting the answer as anything else could.

I, for one, was enormously impressed by the Rev. Buechner's distaste for slogans, as I was by his theological sophistication in explaining that “contrary to widespread religious belief” God does not make good things happen to good people and bad things to bad ones. (Exactly how widespread is that belief, I wonder?)

But above all I found myself lost in admiration for his sensitivity, so sensitively displayed in an account of how he wept salt tears at a televisual depiction of the townsfolk of Union, South Carolina, bringing flowers to the shore of the lake wherein Mrs. Susan Smith recently drowned her two sons—tears not only for the children but “maybe even for the unimaginable, or all too imaginable, mother.” Those tears were his Christmas epiphany—a moment of, well, something special:

My guess is that it doesn't matter all that much what one calls such moments, but it does matter immeasurably that we recognize them when we find them, and maybe even follow in the direction they point—toward a true humanness that could save this demon-haunted world, if there is anything, anywhere to save it.

A cry-in against Rush Limbaugh and the Christian Right? I think I can say that such flapdoodle is almost worthy of Anna Quindlen herself, and it gave me new hope to find it again in her own former haunts so soon after she had vacated them. However much the tendency of the age may be toward common sense, there will never be any shortage of foolishness in the Times.

Elizabeth Leland (review date spring 1995)

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SOURCE: Leland, Elizabeth. “An Easy Switch from Columns to Fiction.” Nieman Reports 49, no. 1 (spring 1995): 65.

[In the following review, Leland praises Quindlen's style in One True Thing, but points to a few of the novel's weaknesses as well.]

When I heard that Anna Quindlen decided to write novels full-time, charging confidently into a new career that many journalists dare only dream about, my first thought was: can she pull this one off, too? If One True Thing is any indication, the answer is as clear as her writing style: “yes.”

Yes, she switches from fact to fiction as easily as she switched from New York Times columnist to stay-at-home mom after the birth of her second son. Yes, she abandons the formula of journalism for descriptive, sometimes powerful, prose. And yes, she weaves a tale that's both captivating and convincing.

The publication of One True Thing coincided with Quindlen's much-talked-about decision to leave The Times. This time, for good. She won a Pulitzer and stood first in line for a top job at The Times. Why not try something different? She said she liked this second novel so much, she felt confident about her decision. And well she should.

Her narrator is twenty-four-year-old Ellen Gulden, who quits her job to care for her dying mother, and then is charged with mercy killing. But that's just the hook. One True Thing is a story about parent-child relations, about dying, about balancing family and work.

Ellen is smart, driven, self-confident to the point of arrogance. I didn't find her especially likable at first. She idolizes her father, the charming, yet shallow university professor who regularly cajoles his students into bed and teaches his daughter to prize people in novels over real people. Ellen graduates from Harvard and takes a job as editorial assistant and sometime reporter for a big New York City magazine. At last, she's away from the college town of Langhorne, where she grew up. She can live the way she wants, far from the kind of life her mother lived. She can get ahead.

She's never been close to her mother, never understood, much less appreciated what Kate Gulden does. Kate didn't go to college. She married, stayed home and took care of her husband and three children. She wallpapered their bedrooms and papered picture frames to match. She sewed Halloween costumes and helped fashion Christmas decorations for the trees at the end of Main Street. Everyone in town liked Kate.

“When I considered her dispassionately I knew that, as my friends said, I was lucky in my mother,” Ellen says. “It was simply that I rarely considered her at all. My mother was like dinner: I needed her in order to live, but I did not pay much attention to what went into her.”

Now Kate is dying of cancer. Ellen's father, George, orders her back home to take care of her mother. Ellen doesn't want to give up her New York City life. Why not a nurse, she demands? But she doesn't know how to refuse her father.

Returning home, Ellen comes to know her mother, and herself. She pushes Kate into town in a wheelchair, helps make Christmas ornaments, learns to cook. They form the Gulden Girls Book Club to read and discuss Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, Anna Karenina. Ellen sees her mother as never before.

As Ellen changes, she discovers she has something of her mother in her after all. It's Thanksgiving. Kate is worse. Ellen's boyfriend returns home for the holiday, but he's more concerned about sex than Ellen's grief. Ellen retreats to the kitchen to cream onions, peel yams and make stuffing the way Kate instructed: “… I realized that I was doing it all for the sake of stability, to make it seem as though this Thanksgiving was no different from any other. I was maintaining, abetting, creating a kind of elaborate fiction, just as my mother had, with gravy and pumpkin pie and heavy cream. The fiction that everything was fine, that life was simple and secure, that husbands did not stray and children grow, that the body did not decay and finally fail, that the axis of the earth passed dead center through the kitchen and the living room and the world kept spinning, our family unchanging, safe and sound.”

Ellen confronts a balancing act similar to one Quindlen faced: the life of the job versus the life of the home. And like Ellen, Quindlen lost her mother at a young age. To anyone who's watched someone waste away, skin slacken, skull protrude, its seems likely Quindlen drew her painful, yet powerful descriptions from experience.

But one thing about Ellen doesn't ring as true. Her transformation from hard-driven New York professional to sensitive caregiver is so swift and complete, it's a little unbelievable. One morning before Christmas, Ellen stands three hours on a ladder, hanging ornaments on a town spruce, readjusting balls and bows at her mother's whimsy. Where did Ellen—“the girl who would walk over her mother in golf shoes”—learn such patience?

Kate inevitably dies, and Ellen is charged with murder. Part Two of the novel deals with that. I won't give it away. Afterwards, Quindlen tidies everything up in an epilogue, a bit too nicely, but with a few interesting surprises. And I couldn't help but smile at her passing commentary on our business and why her narrator, Ellen, finally gave it up: “It was the idea of facing a future skimming the surface of life, winging my way in and out of other people's traumas, crises, confusions, and passages, engaging them enough to get the story but never enough to be indelibly touched by what I had seen or heard.”

One True Thing leaves an indelible touch.

Marilyn Gardner (review date 11 February 1998)

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SOURCE: Gardner, Marilyn. “Fugitive Life of a Battered Wife: Details of a Home Torn Apart.” Christian Science Monitor 90, no. 53 (11 February 1998): 15.

[In the following review, Gardner provides lukewarm praise for Quindlen's Black and Blue.]

When Anna Quindlen was mapping the social landscape of late-20th-century America as a columnist for The New York Times, she wrote regularly about domestic violence. With a blend of compassion and outrage, she gave eloquent voice to a sisterhood of women who remain largely silent and invisible.

Now, in her third novel, Black and Blue, Quindlen has turned those real-life women into a courageous fictional heroine, Fran Benedetto, a 38-year-old Brooklyn nurse. After enduring years as “a punching bag and marionette” in the hands of her husband, Bobby, a policeman, Fran flees, taking the couple's 10-year-old son, Robert, with her. She is aided by an underground network of nameless volunteers who help abused women establish “new lives in new places” and “start over in the great expansive anonymous sameness of America.”

For Fran and her son, those new lives bring new identities—Beth and Robert Crenshaw—and a new address in a dusty central Florida town, Lake Plata. Their dingy garden apartment is so small that Beth needs only a single gallon of butter-yellow paint to cover the living room walls.

Terrified that an enraged Bobby will track them down. Beth becomes a “peeping Tom of a parent.” She volunteers in the school library so she can watch her son. She installs a baby monitor under his bed, so if someone opens his bedroom window, she'll hear it. She scans crowds for her husband's face and stands behind the screen in her apartment every afternoon, waiting for the school bus to deliver Robert safely home. Through it all, she knows that “my greatest fear is his fondest wish. Daddy. Daddy. Daddy.”

Gradually, Beth eases the isolation of her fugitive life. She works part time as a home health-care aide. The first mother she meets on the opening day of school becomes a best friend. And Robert's soccer coach becomes a jogging partner and confidant.

But even in this new life, Beth wonders every night “how it might have been different.” She recognizes that she was locked in place not only by her husband but by all the comforting details of domesticity, from “balloon shades and miniblinds and the way I felt at night sleeping on my extra-firm mattress” to the “solid, settled feeling” of finding the same mugs on the same hooks in the cupboard.

Quindlen deftly explores the rocky emotional terrain of love and marriage, as well as the complexities of secrets and lies, choices and consequences. In the process, she poses timeless questions: What—and where—is home? What constitutes freedom? And when does the price of freedom exceed its value?

At times the book borders on the didactic, as if Quindlen, the skilled novelist, has briefly reverted to Quindlen, the earnest columnist, wanting to be sure her readers “get it” about domestic abuse—why, for example, against all bruised black-and-blue evidence, women stay with abusive partners, and why they leave.

Quindlen's smooth, compelling prose also occasionally overreaches, producing strained imagery that doesn't quite work (“all those small mosaic pieces of self that felt barely held together with plaster of personality”). And although she neatly captures both Beth's vulnerability and her strength, Beth never becomes a fully rounded character.

As early as her high school days, Quindlen expressed an ambition to write “the great American novel.” This isn't it. Still, Black and Blue carries the ring of truth, and its aching sadness is redeemed in part by Quindlen's tender portrait of indomitable maternal love.

Anna Quindlen and Kim Campbell (interview date 11 February 1995)

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SOURCE: Quindlen, Anna, and Kim Campbell. “Speaking Freely about Her Latest Novel.” Christian Science Monitor 90, no. 53 (11 February 1995): 15.

[In the following interview, Quindlen discusses her new novel Black and Blue and how her writing has improved.]

In person, former columnist Anna Quindlen is much like she is in print: forthright, thoughtful, and often funny.

She is game to discuss most anything—the president's problems, the reading habits of her children, the movie version of her book One True Thing.

But what she talks most freely about these days is her third novel, Black and Blue, and what it's been like writing fiction full time since leaving The New York Times three years ago.

“I think I've gotten good at it,” she says over breakfast during a promotional swing through Boston. “I think this is a good novel. And I think it's a better novel than One True Thing, and I think One True Thing is a better novel than Object Lessons.

Her passion for fiction—writing it and reading it—is readily apparent. A conversation with her is peppered with titles and authors: Toni Morrison, Anita Brookner, Ayn Rand. Her eye for detail, she says, came from reading her favorite, Charles Dickens, and years of newspaper work.

“As a reporter you just have this great opportunity to learn so much about life, never mind anything you learn about budgets, or municipal government, or infrastructure. You learn about how people really talk, about how people really behave, how they act when they're under stress. It was the best possible preparation for a life as a fiction writer.”

For her that life is now a 10 to 2 weekday job that begins after a brisk walk and the three kids get off to school. Ms. Quindlen says she starts with a theme, rather than an issue, when sitting down to write a book. In the case of Black and Blue, she says the idea about relationships between men and women came first, domestic violence was secondary.

Set in New York and Florida, the story follows Fran Benedetto who, after years of abuse, finally flees her husband. Quindlen says she made Fran a smart woman with a secret, someone people could see a little of themselves in, instead of a distant victim.

“It's a mistake when we try to objectify people who have things like this happen to them. I was at a lunch once, and I said very blithely, ‘You know, I don't have any friends who actually have been raped.’ And the entire table fell silent, and I instantaneously knew, that I might not know I had any friends who had been raped, but I had some. … We're so good at putting up this patina of perfection.”

Offering the kind of insight that won her regular readers, she explains why she might have written a column about Hillary Rodham Clinton “vis-à-vis this book” when the Monica Lewinsky story broke.

Pointing to what the book suggests about identity, she notes, “Marriage happens in increments.” First a couple share an address, then friends, family, and a church. “So the notion of splitting up with him is not severing your relationship with one man, but putting a bomb in the middle of your life.

“That's why I find it so hard to believe when married people say about Hillary, ‘How can she stay?’ Well, you know, incrementally she made compromises, and those compromises have become the substance of her life.”

Although Quindlen's “Public & Private” columns were widely read and praised—she won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992—her novels have gotten mixed reviews. The public has been more positive, propelling her books onto bestseller lists. And Hollywood has taken notice, too, with One True Thing, starring Meryl Streep, opening in October.

But no amount of criticism will likely shake Quindlen from her current course. She wrote in her high school yearbook that her ambition was to pen “the great American novel.” Louisa May Alcott inspired her as a child: “I read Little Women and discovered that I could in fact be a published writer, because Jo March could. That was an invaluable gift for a 10-year-old girl.”

She got a lot of positive reinforcement from teachers, something she says should be encouraged. “Writing can really build self-esteem because it can allow you to communicate with other people in a way that you may find difficult or impossible verbally.” She applauds rap music, for example, because it has “taught kids who might never have thought so otherwise that words are cool.”

Quindlen is at work on a new novel about redemption, putting her columnist days even further behind her. “I've been a columnist,” she explains. “And whether you liked it or you didn't like it, it's the best column I could write. I'm not going to write any better a column than I wrote during those five years. I hope that for the foreseeable future, I'm going to get better at writing novels.”

Susie Linfield (review date 4 March 1998)

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SOURCE: Linfield, Susie. “From Discord, a Wife Makes a Nice New Life—Too Nice.” Los Angeles Times (4 March 1998): E6.

[In the following review, Linfield asserts that while Quindlen's Black and Blue is well-paced, the novel remains too glib and predictable.]

In her column “Public and Private,” which ran in the New York Times for five years and won a Pulitzer Prize, Anna Quindlen exemplified the essence of a very nice feminist. She consistently took positions that were reasonable and fair, arguing in favor of justice and equality. But hers was a feminism that was essentially safe—for cozy suburbanites, for corporate profits, for life as we know it. She wanted to tinker with the world, not transform it.

In her new novel [Black and Blue], Quindlen takes on a subject that is anything but nice: domestic violence. This is the story of Fran Benedetto, a working-class woman from Brooklyn who, after years of being beaten bloody by her husband, Bobby, takes off with her beloved 10-year-old son, Robert, in tow. With the help of an underground railroad for battered women, she flees to Lake Plata, Fla., a place where there is “no town, really, just a collection of strangers ranged around a commercial strip.” There, under an assumed name and with a new identity, she attempts to forge a new life.

Quindlen's telling of this tale is expertly paced and frequently gripping. Still, there is something too pat, too glib, too predictable, too, well, nice about Black and Blue. It is hard to think of a writer whose sensibility is less suited to her subject.

In Fran, Quindlen has created a character who is perceptive, decent and consistently sympathetic. Maybe too much so: While Fran is allowed a dollop of anger, even rage, we never fully believe that this is a woman who has been vilely degraded, a woman whose body has been smashed and whose soul has been betrayed. Quindlen seems afraid to present us with a battered woman whom we might not like at every turn. And Fran's frequent insistence on her own mediocrity—“All I'd ever wanted was to be an ordinary woman”—becomes annoying.

Not surprisingly, everyone Fran meets in Florida is awfully nice. There's her new best friend, Cindy Roerbacker, who cheerfully dispenses advice on makeup and romance. There's Mike Riordan, who falls in love with Fran; he coaches the soccer team and adores kids. There's old Mrs. Levitt, cranky but kind, who's placidly philosophic despite the concentration-camp numbers tattooed on her arm: “Ah, what are you going to do?” she asks. What, indeed? Apparently, when bad things happen to good people, the good people remain essentially unchanged.

This may be a comforting world-view, but it's false and extraordinarily uninteresting too; even worse, it can, in a perverse way, become a defense of evil. (If evil doesn't fundamentally damage people, why is it really so bad?) And perhaps Quindlen does not fully believe in her own paradigm either, for she departs from it, crucially, in her depiction of Fran's son. Not surprisingly, he emerges as the most affecting character in the novel.

Unlike his father, Robert is not angry or violent. On the contrary, he's a good boy—too good, with that discipline, that spooky self-possession and that aversion to spontaneous feeling that children raised in troubled homes often have. He's a lovable kid, but cautious and tepid too, a kid who has learned to shield himself from the truth of his own feelings.

Ultimately, Fran abandons Bobby to save Robert; she fears not that Robert will grow up to be a violent man, but that he will be come a blank one. And she sees that this is, in its own way, a terrifying fate: “My little boy, who had always had something of the little old man about him, was becoming a dead man, too, with a dead man's eyes,” she observes.

After Fran has left Bobby, she remembers that “I've Got You Under My Skin” had been their wedding song. Black and Blue is admirable in many ways, and engaging too. But its characters never fully come alive; it glides on the surface; it evaporates too quickly; it never really gets under your skin.

Frank L. Fennell (review date 6 June 1998)

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SOURCE: Fennell, Frank L. Review of Black and Blue, by Anna Quindlen. America 178, no. 20 (6 June 1998): 25-6.

[In the following review, Fennell offers a mixed assessment of Black and Blue.]

“Pulitzer Prize-winner”—it is a phrase she rather likes, Anna Quindlen admitted once during a television interview. And well she should—first, because she has earned it, for her earlier New York Times column “Public & Private,” and, second, because the chief virtue of her fiction writing is the ability to dramatize an issue in a way similar to the impassioned essays that first brought her to our attention.

Black and Blue, Quindlen's third novel, is the first-person narrative of Fran Benedetto, a 38-year-old nurse and mother and frequent victim of the brutal violence inflicted on her by her husband, Bobby, a New York City police detective. For years Bobby, in his periodic fits of rage, has cursed, slapped, choked, kicked and punched Fran. She has suffered a gruesome list of injuries: broken nose, broken jaw, cracked collarbone, broken ribs, countless bruises and contusions. Finally, in desperation, she flees. Aided by a nameless organization that helps battered women escape and set up new identities, she arrives in Lake Plata, Fla., with her 10-year-old son, Robert, plus a new name, a new age, a new appearance and a new profession. But the past is not so easily escaped. The reader knows as surely as Fran does that Bobby will find her and that the encounter will be explosive. The palpable tension in the novel arises from this certainty.

Quindlen's success has a kind of cinematic quality to it; we know that the ominous Bobby is out there somewhere, searching for Fran and Robert; we know, too, that his arrival will be unexpected, sudden, violent and inescapable, just as it is with the villains in horror movies. Furthermore, Quindlen has another advantage that often belongs to movies, the ability to record faithfully the hundreds of little details that make up our everyday lives: Fran using Loving Care No. 27 California Blonde hair dye, Robert's friend, Bennie, mastering the sixth level of “Double Dragon” and mother and son reading One Fish, Two Fish together. Quindlen gives details of a “status life,” as Tom Wolfe would call them, though she does so without Wolfe's corrosive satire.

But Quindlen's greatest asset is the skill she brings with her from her days as a Times essay writer: the ability to hold up for our examination a deeply serious moral issue. Black and Blue is, if nothing else, a searing indictment of the violence men inflict upon women. While Quindlen depicts little that is new, she does incorporate much of what we have come to know about spousal abuse (male possessiveness, male inculturation, women's lack of self-esteem and the resulting helplessness, as well as the economic and familial traps by which women feel forced to return to the men who batter them). More importantly, she makes us share the pain, feel the fear and care about Fran's and Robert's fates. For the attentive reader of this novel, domestic violence can never be the object simply of polite distaste or calculated indifference.

If Black and Blue shares its strongest feature with the essay, therein also lies its greatest weakness as a novel. Quindlen can dramatize spousal abuse very well, but, as a work of fiction, Black and Blue lacks the rich texture found in the very best examples of the genre. Dickens, for example, may score early and often against corrupt lawyers or self-aggrandizing educators or toadying businessmen in Great Expectations, but we also value this novel precisely because it takes on so many issues on so many different levels, and because it paints pictures in such subtle, colorful detail, with qualities akin to a Tom Frith cityscape. Religion may not be Dickens's focus, but when it falls within the novelist's purview (even as if “by accident”), he cannot avoid making small observations about current practice or, more accurately, current forms of religious hypocrisy.

Quindlen's social portrait, in contrast, resembles an Ivan Albright portrait: harrowing, monochromatic, painted in the black and blue of Fran's bruises. To follow out the comparison, when religion enters this novel it does so only by way of notes about cultural Catholicism—Fran's wedding at St. Stanislaus (what Bobby called “the Church of the Holy Pollack”) or Robert making his first confession to Father Charles. Quindlen has little to say about religion's relevance to, or complicity in, domestic violence.

In short, Quindlen has not yet gained full control of the novelist's craft. Her male characters, for example, have nothing of Fran's complexity or her mixture of hurt, tenderness, humor and budding self-confidence. Bobby embodies malevolence, and Fran's new love interest, the gym teacher Mike Riordon, is a cipher. Moreover the reader detects clumsiness in the management of voice. How, for example, can we really fear Bobby's incursion into Fran's life when her very voice as narrator assures us of her survival? And the ending seems strangely anti-climactic, especially since an epilogue suddenly asks us to reconfigure time relationships in order to get us to a present we always thought we had been in.

Still, Anna Quindlen has sought out the qualities of novels that often matter most to people: the ability to hold up important issues to the light of public scrutiny and dramatize and humanize them—and ultimately even to galvanize them. She has welded them to the qualities that characterized her best newspaper columns. Black and Blue makes for a riveting read.

Faith McLellan (review date 27 June 1998)

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SOURCE: McLellan, Faith. “Where the Bruises and Hurts Live On.” Lancet (27 June 1998): 1970.

[In the following review, McLellan concludes that Quindlen's gifts as a columnist have served her well in Black and Blue.]

In the hospital I'd learned that there are really two kinds of people in the world, people who go hard and efficient in times of terrible trouble, and the ones … who scream, shriek, go limp, sink to the floor, become patients themselves.” Fran Benedetto, the nurse who is the protagonist of Anna Quindlen's compelling novel [Black and Blue], has, after years of physical abuse by her New York cop husband, Bobby, gone hard and efficient, has taken their 10-year-old son, Robert, and vanished. She has allowed herself to be spirited away from everything she knows, to begin again, with a different job, an invented past, and a future as Elizabeth Crenshaw, in Lake Plata, Florida, a generic, anonymous town where she hopes her husband will never find her. The people who secretively rescued her and created her new biography have coached her on the many things she must now remember—a new Social Security number, a made-up former life in a place where she never was, with an accountant husband who never existed. But it is harder to let go of the many things she must also now forget: her family, her career, and all that was happily familiar. The unpredictable terrors will now be replaced by new and equally unpredictable anxieties.

Fran/Beth identifies some of the reasons—“small things: routine, order”—battered wives give for why it may be hard to leave what to others seems clearly intolerable. Comfortable surroundings and long-held possessions, even in homes darkened by violence, can exert a powerful pull. There, ordinary life and love can paradoxically lie side by side with fear and rage, making the wounded feel even more torn:

It makes me feel stupid, sometimes, feeling my scars, the spots where you can just make out the damage and the ones where the bruises and hurts live on only in my head. I loved Bobby, and he loved me. … I felt like two people at once, the woman who seemed so in control and content, and the one with the black eyes and broken bones, the one who loved her husband and feared and hated him, all at the same time.

The story is about the challenges of starting from scratch in an unknown place and of struggling for normalcy, all while glancing over your shoulder, for fear that your old life, peopled by bewildered and angry characters, will suddenly pop up behind you. Along the way, the Crenshaws' lives become intertwined with the patients for whom Beth now works as a home health-care aide (it's hard to get a nursing job when your credentials and experience have been made to disappear); with neighbours and school friends who are struggling with their own family and social crises, even as they wonder whether Robert needs counselling for his surprising anger and why the Crenshaws have no place to go at Thanksgiving or Christmas; and with one of Robert's teachers, who takes care of Robert and his mother, from “sometimes near, sometimes at a distance”, without really knowing why. These new relationships, the ever-present worry and waiting, the remembering of good times and bad, and the watching over a child who doesn't understand why he can't go home, can't talk about his Brooklyn life or the father he still loves: these are the central tensions of this open and insightful work. Quindlen, who gave up a highly acclaimed New York Times column to become a novelist, shows that her eye for domestic detail focuses just as sharply in fiction as it did in another kind of “real life”.

Margaret Russell (review date July 1998)

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SOURCE: Russell, Margaret. “Fighting Back.” Women's Review of Books 15, nos. 10-11 (July 1998): 22-3.

[In the following excerpt, Russell praises Quindlen for creating the right tone for her novel Black and Blue.]

Images and themes of women and violence are an easy sell in popular culture. Through the reporting of rapes on the evening news to the hairpulling slugfests on the Jerry Springer Show to the numbing array of “slasher” novels and movies, violence in the everyday lives of women comes to seem both ubiquitous and unremarkable. Violence against, as well as by, women is often depicted not to illuminate its influence, but to shock, titillate and entertain. Only with the emergence of female narratives of violence can we begin to recognize the wide range of reactions to the real brutality and chaos that permeate many women's experiences of the world. Three new novels offer intriguing—and divergent—perspectives on this always timely subject.

Of the three, Black and Blue is the grimmest and most explicit reminder of the quotidian nature of violence in the lives of many women. Anna Quindlen is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist most widely noted for her New York Times columns “Life in the 30's” and “Public & Private.” Her nonfiction commentaries for the Times in the 1980s and early 1990s were characterized by succinct, trenchant observations about everyday experiences, and a subtle ability to portray the interrelated personal and political dimensions of contemporary American life. Many readers, particularly women whose own “life in the 30s” paralleled Quindlen's coming of age in the 1980s as a feminist seeking to embrace both family and professional commitments, particularly valued her willingness to examine the vicissitudes of her day-to-day life and to treat them as commonplace yet worthy of attention, introspection and respect.

Black and Blue, Quindlen's third novel, similarly engages the reader in an exploration of the personal and mundane as a vehicle for understanding both a large-scale societal problem—domestic violence—and the universal feelings of terror, desperation and confusion that accompany a woman's decision to leave an abusive relationship.

The story is told by Fran Benedetto, who as the book opens furtively escapes with her ten-year-old son from a violent marriage to Bobby Benedetto, a Brooklyn police officer. Aided by an underground women's organization so vigilant about safety that it is nameless even to its employees and the clients it relocates, Fran and her son Robert are spirited by car, train and bus to Philadelphia, Baltimore, Atlanta and finally Lake Plata, Florida. The organization gives them different identities along with their new lives: thirtyish red-haired nurse Fran becomes thirtyish blonde Beth Crenshaw, a divorced home health care aide from Wilmington, Delaware; Robert, after much pleading by Fran, is allowed to keep his first name and is placed in the local public school. Black and Blue follows Fran/Beth's struggle to carve out a new existence for herself and her son even as she is haunted by memories of her former life.

Violence—specifically, the controlling and seductive Bobby's long-term physical and emotional battering of Fran—is unmistakably the core of this story, the key to understanding the themes that Quindlen explores. Fran's tale is a plain, straightforward recollection of her life with Bobby in an invisible prison of domestic abuse. Their love affair began when she was a teenager, too young and smitten to disentangle her own feelings from his:

The first time he hit me I was nineteen. I can hear his voice now, so persuasive, so low and yet somehow so strong, making me understand once again that I'm all wrong. Frannie, Frannie, Fran, he says. That's how he begins. Frannie, Frannie, Fran. … I didn't hit you. You know I didn't hit you. You see, Fran, this is what you do. You twist things. You always twist things.

I can hear him in my head. And I know he's right. He didn't hit me, that first time. He just held onto my upper arm so tight that the mark of his fingertips was like a tattoo, a black sun.

(p. 5)

Perhaps the most moving and effective aspect of this book is its simplicity of execution. As illustrated by the above passage, Black and Blue has the unadorned, matter-of-fact tone of a diary written by someone mainly to keep herself from going crazy with the loneliness, ambivalence and fear of a life on the run. The spare prose Quindlen chooses to convey Fran/Beth's story is lullingly deceptive; I was well immersed in the novel before I realized how accurately its narrative cadence reflects the flat, resigned affect of an abused person. With every episode of the violence inflicted upon her body, of the emergency room visits, of the subsequent cover-ups and denials, Fran seems to be saying: This is just the way life is.

Quindlen deftly conveys the gradual transformation of Fran's emotions as she is propelled to leave Bobby and go underground:

On the outside I looked fine: the job, the house, the kid, the husband, the smile. Nobody got to see the hitting, which was really the humiliation, which turned into the hatred. Not just hating Bobby, but hating myself, too, the cringing self that was afraid to pick up the remote control from the coffee table in case it was just that thing that set him off.

(p. 10)

And she unflinchingly portrays the bond of attraction that entrapped Fran for so long. Even after years of battering, Fran's recollections are mingled with a deeply sensual longing for “the good times”:

Jesus, I loved him. There, I said it. It makes me feel stupid, sometimes, feeling my scars, the spots where you can just make out the damage and the ones where the bruises and hurts live on only in my head. I loved Bobby, and he loved me. … In the beginning I loved him, loved him, loved him pure and simple. And then after a while I loved the idea of him, the good Bobby, who came to me every once in awhile and rubbed my back and kissed my fingers.

(p. 99)

It is Fran's love for her son Robert that ultimately provides the catalyst for her escape. Practically from birth, Robert is doubly victimized by his parents' not-so-hidden battles: first by being forced to cower through the bewildering after-bedtime arguments, slaps and punches, then by enduring the inevitable morning-after denials that anything happened. Fran finally realizes that Robert's childhood has also been a casualty of her destructive marriage, and resolves to take him “where there won't be secrets anymore.”

The irony, of course, is that their post-Bobby life is entirely secret, a life so hidden that they are not allowed to communicate with anyone from their past. Robert is given back a childhood, but one bereft of his father, his memories and even his original identity. Fran/Beth's domestic terror is replaced by the fear that Bobby, ever-confident of his control over her, will appear to kill her and kidnap Robert.

This unending sense of dread is a chilling reminder of the continuing violence wrought upon women who escape abusive relationships. The realistic sense of foreboding captured by Quindlen renders Black and Blue as unsettling as any novel of suspense. The denouement is both credible and surprising, and Fran/Beth ends the tale of her journey much changed yet still ambivalent. Again, she seems to be saying, although this time with hard-won wisdom, this is the way life is.

Kim Risedorph (review date 3 December 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 243

SOURCE: Risedorph, Kim. Review of Siblings, by Anna Quindlen. Christian Science Monitor 91, no. 6 (3 December 1998): 18.

[In the following review, Risedorph provides a favorable assessment of Siblings, Quindlen's collaboration with photographer Nick Kelsh.]

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Anna Quindlen and renowned photographer Nick Kelsh collaborated before on their bestseller Naked Babies. In this newest work, they reveal the naked truth about siblings.

In 60 captivating black-and-white photos, Kelsh reveals the many sides of the sibling relationship—the fun, the fights, and the friendships.

In her text, Quindlen exposes the light and the darkness that surround these relationships. She recalls her personal experiences as a sister and as a mother for stories of how children grow up together.

For contrast, she draws on the work of Jane Austen, Gary Larson, Anne Frank, and others who have described brothers and sisters.

Four essays explore the sibling relationship, the role of the baby in the family, the differences between siblings, and the supersister—the one who takes on the role of substitute mother.

With her characteristic tenderness, honesty, and humor, Quindlen admits that the only person she has ever beaten up (more than once) is her brother, Bob. Yet as both a child and an adult, there is no one else she loves quite the way she loves this brother. Therein is the mystery and magic of the sibling relationship.

The design of the book adds to its appeal. The overall effect will please a variety of viewers—and siblings.

Publishers Weekly (review date 26 August 2002)

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SOURCE: Review of Blessings, by Anna Quindlen. Publishers Weekly 249, no. 34 (26 August 2002): 41.

[In the following review, the critic argues that Quindlen's Blessings offers convincing dialogue, strong characterization, and a dramatic plot.]

Venturing into fictional territory far from the blue-collar neighborhoods of Black and Blue and other works, Quindlen's immensely appealing new novel [Blessings] is a study in social contrasts and of characters whose differences are redeemed by the transformative power of love. The eponymous Blessings is a stately house now gone to seed, inhabited by Mrs. Blessing, an 80-year-old wealthy semirecluse with an acerbic tongue and a reputation for hanging on to every nickel. Widowed during WWII, Lydia Blessing was banished to her socially prominent family's country estate for reasons that are revealed only gradually. Austere, unbending and joyless, Lydia has no idea, when she hires young Skip Cuddy as her handyman, how her life and his are about to change. Skip had promise once, but bad companions and an absence of parental guidance have led to a stint in the county jail. When Skip stumbles upon a newborn baby girl who's been abandoned at Blessings, he suddenly has a purpose in life. With tender devotion, he cares secretly for the baby for four months, in the process forming a bond with Mrs. Blessing, who discovers and admires his clandestine parenting skills. A double betrayal destroys their idyll. As usual, Quindlen's fine-tuned ear for the class distinctions of speech results in convincing dialogue. Evoking a bygone patrician world, she endows Blessings with an almost magical aura. While it skirts sentimentality by a hairbreadth, the narrative is old-fashioned in a positive way, telling a dramatic story through characters who develop and change, and testifying to the triumph of human decency when love is permitted to grow and flourish.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 September 2002)

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SOURCE: Review of Blessings, by Anna Quindlen. Kirkus Reviews 70, no. 17 (1 September 2002): 1258.

[In the following review, the critic provides a lukewarm assessment of Quindlen's Blessings.]

[Blessings is the] fourth adult novel from Newsweek columnist Quindlen (Black and Blue, 1998, etc.), a story of lost souls redeemed by love.

A friend of Lydia Blessing once told her that there was a secret at the heart of every family and—predictably—it's revealed that the Blessing family had dark secrets to spare. Eighty years old when the story begins, Lydia lives more in the past than present, haunted by memories. Her handsome, ne'er-do-well, secretly homosexual brother Sunny was a shotgun suicide; and Lydia's long-ago marriage to Sunny's best friend Ben Carton was a sham (madly in love with Sunny, Ben obligingly married his sister, though she was pregnant by another man, then conveniently died in WWII). Her charming father had evidently married her cold and disapproving mother mostly for money, and it turns out that Ethel Blessing, to all appearances a staunch Episcopalian, was actually Jewish. The family shuttled between Blessings, the enormous house on the vast New England estate that her father called his gentleman's farm, and a Manhattan townhouse. Lydia and her brother attended the right schools, wore the right clothes, socialized with the right people, etc. Hoping to conceal the true paternity of her redheaded granddaughter (no, Ben really couldn't manage sex with a woman), Ethel packed Lydia off to the Blessings, where she raised her daughter Meredith more or less alone and otherwise observed the rules and routines of upper-class WASPs. And so the decades rolled by and now Lydia makes do with the company of her cranky Korean housekeeper and the estate caretaker, Skip Cuddy, a drifter with a heart of gold who lives in the shabby apartment over her five-car garage. Nothing much changes—until a newborn baby is left on the doorstep. The caretaker moves her to his dresser drawer, figures out how to feed her, and names her Faith. And Lydia is shaken out of her genteel torpor at last.

As soap-opera-parable with old-fashioned contrivances: comfortable, not Quindlen's best.

Michael Harris (review date 22 September 2002)

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SOURCE: Harris, Michael. “All in the Family.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (22 September 2002): 13.

[In the following review, Harris offers a positive assessment of Blessings.]

A teenager drives his girlfriend one night to a rich widow's estate outside a small New England town. They leave a box containing a newborn baby, which is found the next morning by the young caretaker, Skip Cuddy. Skip, who has served time in jail and was abandoned by his own father, isn't inclined to turn the infant girl over to what he considers a callous foster-care system. He names her Faith and tries to raise her himself, in secret.

The estate is called Blessings, and it doesn't take any special alertness to suspect that Anna Quindlen's fourth novel [Blessings] (after Object Lessons, One True Thing and Black and Blue) is going to deliver a heartwarming story. Which it does. What surprises us is that good things happen not just to Skip and the baby but to the widow, Lydia Blessing, who has lived on the estate for 50 years and is mummified by the routine she has imposed to keep time and change at bay.

Lydia's father pretended to be rich when the money was really his wife's. Her mother was Jewish and hid this fact by posing as the crustiest of Episcopalians. Her beloved brother, Sunny, committed suicide. The father of Lydia's only child was an older, married man; to avoid scandal after becoming pregnant, she married a family friend she didn't love. Her husband was killed in World War II. Exiled to Blessings by her mother, who knew her secret, Lydia made the place a permanent refuge.

Like Lydia's life, Blessings is deceptive. With its big white house, its trout-filled pond, its woods and gardens and orchards, it's “almost perfect, the sort of place that … promised plenty without pretense, ease without arrogance.” But it's kept that way by the labor of generations of workers from town, such as Skip. Lydia is both despotic and helpless: She's constantly critical of the morning coffee others make for her, but she doesn't know how to grind the beans herself.

Skip, who lives in a little apartment over the Blessings garage, buys diapers and formula and child-care books. He works outdoors hunched over, the baby riding in a sling on his chest. Inevitably, though, Lydia finds out about Faith—and then accepts her presence and his surrogate fatherhood, which nothing we have seen of the old woman so far has suggested she'd do.

Quindlen's method is to tell the contemporary story, the story of Skip and the baby, a bit at a time—spacing it among long descriptions of the estate and of Lydia's memories, which seem as vivid as what's happening to her now but arrive out of sequence. This makes for a slow read until the sequence is apparent—until we understand how Lydia got to be the way she is and why, at 80, she might be willing and able to change.

“It's very difficult to believe that someone would just abandon an infant in the middle of nowhere like that,” Lydia tells Skip sternly, even as she recalls her mother's voice a half-century ago advising her that Blessings “is the ideal place for you to have the baby.”

Jennifer Foster, the daughter of Lydia's Korean housekeeper, is sympathetic too. She, Skip and Lydia form a baby-admiring and picnicking society, a summer-long conspiracy against the world, as “set apart” as the estate has always been. But New England summers are short, and we know the idyll can't last. The question is what poses the greatest threat: the law and the biological mother? The housekeeper, a greater despot, in her own way, than Lydia? Or the lowlife friends who led Skip astray before he came to Blessings?

John Cheever, in his Wapshot novels, covered some of the same geographical and psychological territory with humor, luminous prose and a hint of real tragedy. Quindlen, by contrast, is earnest, detailed and comforting. She considers a question that haunts Skip and Lydia—are we trapped forever in the cages of our upbringing and class?—before she delivers, with the aid of a dead man's bloodstained suit and an attic full of treasure, on the promise of her title, however mixed those blessings may be.

Barbara Lloyd McMichael (review date 6 October 2002)

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SOURCE: McMichael, Barbara Lloyd. “Blessings Sewes Up Faith, Hope.” Seattle Times (6 October 2002): L10.

[In the following review, McMichael lauds Quindlen's realistic dialogue and characterization and her portrayal of emotion in Blessings.]

The timeworn admonition to “count your blessings” takes on profound new dimensions in a moving new novel by Anna Quindlen.

The author already has forged a reputation for putting her finger on the pulse of the American condition, both in her Pulitzer Prize-winning columns and in her long-form works of fiction and nonfiction, which include A Short Guide to a Happy Life and One True Thing. Quindlen's latest effort, Blessings, is a celebration of second chances, an affirmation that regrets can be taken as lessons, not life sentences.

The title derives from the name of the estate owned by octogenarian Lydia Blessing. She had been a mere girl when her father bought the place as a retreat from their city home “and lavished money on it in the years when he had money to spend.”

Later, as a young war widow, she was discreetly banished there when she gave birth to a baby who clearly bore no resemblance to her dead husband. Now she is living out the end of her days in relative isolation at Blessings, with only her grouchy Korean cook Nadine and her new caretaker Skip Cuddy for company.

The story opens late at night when a teenage couple drives stealthily onto the grounds, places a box on the doorstep and leaves. When Skip stumbles across that box the next morning, he discovers a newborn baby inside.

Anybody else would have called the authorities and turned the baby in—end of story. But not Skip. So far in his young life he has endured the death of his mother, abandonment by his father and 10 months in the local jail for being an accomplice (albeit an unwilling one) to a robbery. He has gritted his way through this unloved existence, furthermore, at a level of society that is poor and coarse and demoralized.

At Blessings he finds himself, for the first time in his life, on the periphery of a world that is palpably beautiful, secure and respectable. He doesn't want to lose this; he doesn't want to rock the boat. So he follows his first panicky instinct with regard to the baby: He hides her.

The newborn has instincts, too, of course, and Skip immediately finds himself kowtowing to this bundle of urgent demands. He feeds the baby, diapers her, rocks her to sleep. How can he not fall in love with her—someone who depends on him for her very life, and who is even more of an outcast than he is?

He names her Faith.

Naturally, he fears that in keeping her he will jeopardize his position at Blessings, so he continues his efforts at subterfuge. But Lydia Blessing is a snoopy old lady, and she soon catches on. For her own reasons, and to Skip's amazement and relief, she decides to assist him in raising—and hiding—this child. It is a tenuous idyll. Their odd-couple alliance and the bonds of trust that they forge are imperiled when ghosts from Skip's past intrude upon his new life.

This entrancing novel weaves together memory and perspective in a seamless narrative. Using jewel-toned images, Quindlen shapes and shifts these fragments into a series of dazzling configurations, each time providing new insights for the reader to use in piecing together the story of that place and its people.

Quindlen addresses questions of birthright, loyalty, grief and redemption. She investigates the unspoken rules of the American class system and ponders the limitations and opportunities of old age. She considers how people try to accommodate their mistakes, if not atone for their sins. Quindlen's characters are true, their dialogue is real and their emotions are heart-wrenchingly genuine.

Blessings is disguised as a quiet story, but underneath the niceties of monogrammed napkins and lavender sachets is a powerful testament to the human capacity to change for the better before it's too late.

Donna Seaman (review date 1 February 2004)

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SOURCE: Seaman, Donna. Review of Loud and Clear, by Anna Quindlen. Booklist 100, no. 11 (1 February 2004): 930-31.

[In the following review, Seaman offers a positive assessment of Loud and Clear.]

In her first retrospective essay collection since Thinking Out Loud (1993), best-selling author and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Quindlen continues to unscramble gnarly social issues [in Loud and Clear] with splendid clarity and pithiness, wit and compassion, and uncommon common sense. As always, the autobiographical energizes her persuasive arguments and sense of justice, and Quindlen writes with her signature candor about her children's metamorphoses into young adults, her decision to give up her prestigious New York Times column to write novels, including Blessings (2002), her felicitous return to journalism as the back-page columnist for Newsweek, and her experiences of September 11 and its aftermath. So true is Quindlen's moral compass, and so lucid, vital, and forward-looking are her insights, that her opinion pieces not only stand the test of time but also provide an invaluable gauge of where we've been and where we're going. Here are probing essays about “overscheduled” children and homeless children, the tremendous advances women have achieved and the persistence of misogyny and sexual aggression, personality and politics, gun laws, tobacco wars, women's health issues, Barbie, pedophile priests, and Iraq. A valiant writer who addresses every aspect of our lives with both gravitas and humor, Quindlen is a tonic for mind and soul.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 February 2004)

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SOURCE: Review of Loud and Clear, by Anna Quindlen. Kirkus Reviews 72, no. 3 (1 February 2004): 121.

[In the following review, the critic offers a mixed assessment of Loud and Clear.]

Light, appealing, and devoid of nutritional value, [Loud and Clear,] this selection of New York Times and Newsweek essays dating from the early 1990s to last year doesn't demand that readers think much. Since the author's opinions are never surprising, they eventually become background noise. This is a shame, because much of what Quindlen has to say is valuable, if shopworn. She fulminates against cigarettes, the death penalty, and the abuse of women—all worthy targets, though Quindlen's garden-variety critiques will change few minds. She reminds parents that child-rearing is an improvised dance in which you must trust yourself: “There is no formula, much as I once looked for one in the pages of Spock and Penelope Leach.” (It's puzzling that she fails to mention that this is precisely Spock's credo.) She has intelligent things to say on alcoholism, the mother myth, and, in perhaps the most valuable pages here, the work of Pulitzer-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa. She can also display a measure of elitism in an attack on racial profiling (posing the coy riddle of why a Princeton professor and a Harvard-educated attorney were pulled over by the police) and remarkable naivete in a paean to free speech (“if there is any justification for an imperial America, it is because this is the jewel in its crown”). Occasionally, though these occasions are mercifully rare, she'll make you want to run screaming into the woods: “Then the moment itself, when the first feeble sentence, often merely a prelude to better things, appears as my fingers play word jazz on the keyboard.”

Rather than float a homily, it would be nice for Quindlen to at least occasionally offer a knot or a koan.

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