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Anna Quindlen, author of several best-selling novels and the recipient of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, emerged as an important novelist and commentator during the last decades of the twentieth century. While Quindlen has sometimes been viewed as a novelist addressing women s issues, her work possesses universal appeal.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Successful Career in Journalism
Quindlen was born on July 8, 1952, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the oldest of five siblings. Her father was a management consultant of Irish heritage, and her mother was a homemaker who came from an Italian family. Even as a youth, Quindlen found herself drawn to writing. Raised in the upper-middle-class neighborhood of Drexel Hill, Quindlen attended private schools and earned her B.A. in English literature from Barnard College in 1974. Because of her parents’ backgrounds, Quindlen’s upbringing was steeped in the strong traditions of Catholicism, which would be an influential topic for her novels and essays. A young girl, raised during the oppressive 1950s, Quindlen came of age during the turbulent decade of the 1960s, which was marked by culture clashes, disagreement over the Vietnam War, and the civil rights movement. Quindlen was undoubtedly influenced by the various progressive movements of that decade, particularly feminism, on which she would reflect numerous times in her works.
Although fiction was her first love, Quindlen pursued a journalism career as the most viable, stable outlet for her writing activity. When she was just eighteen, Quindlen was hired by the New York Post as a part-time reporter, and by the time she completed her degree at Barnard, she had earned a spot as a full-time reporter. While Quindlen was at Barnard, her mother was diagnosed with cancer, and she died when Quindlen was nineteen. In 1977, Quindlen left the New York Post for a job with the prestigious New York Times. She began work there as a general-assignment reporter and was soon assigned to City Hall, which she covered until 1981. In 1978, Quindlen married Gerald Krovatin, a criminal defense attorney. By 1983, Quindlen had been promoted to deputy metropolitan editor, and was contributing two editorial columns a week, in addition to her other writing duties at the New York Post.
Quindlen gave birth to her first son, Quin, in 1983 and another son, Christopher, in 1985. By that time, Quindlen felt drawn to stay home with her children, and she decided to resign from the newspaper. Her editor, however, offered her a chance to write a weekly column, which later turned into ”Life in the 30s.” Quindlen’s columns became enormously popular and soon gained syndication across the United States. Her topics ranged from reminiscences about her childhood to difficulties in raising children, and working outside the home to feminist issues. Her columns were largely drawn from personal experience and addressed subjects that she found important—primarily issues affecting women and children. As a result, Quindlen often received scathing letters of disagreement regarding her views about politics and women’s issues. For the most part, however, her writing appealed to many who became loyal readers. In 1988, Quindlen retired her column, and in the same year, she published her first work, Living Out Loud, which was a collection of her ”Life in the 30s” pieces. Her daughter, Maria, was born that same year, and Quindlen felt that it was time to move toward fiction writing rather than journalism, though she still wrote freelance pieces. In 1992, Quindlen was honored with the Pulitzer Prize in commentary for her work as a columnist.
Branching Out to Fiction
While writing her ”Life in the 30s” column, Quindlen had begun work on a novel, Object Lessons, which was published in 1991. Object Lessons chronicles the lives of three generations of the Scanlans, an Irish-Italian-American family. The novel is related through the perspective of Maggie Scanlan, a thirteen-year-old who observes the activities of adults who perplex her as she watches them. The pivotal summer of Maggie’s life in the novel includes her grandfather’s death, the revelation of family secrets, and her own coming of age. Object Lessons received favorable acclaim from readers, yet critics often panned the book for its inadequacies. Despite the fact it failed to bring strong critical reviews, the book was quite popular among readers.
Quindlen’s next project was a children’s book. It was followed by Thinking Out Loud: On the Personal, the Political, the Public, and the Private (1993), an essay collection in which Quindlen examines a range of social issues. Quindlen’s second work of fiction, One True Thing (1994), is a loosely autobiographical depiction of the lives of an upper-middle-class family dealing with the mother’s diagnosis of cancer. Ellen Gulden gives up a prestigious job to care for her dying mother, for whom she has possessed little respect over the years. While caring for her mother, Ellen learns about herself and the family that she has long taken for granted. Quindlen illustrates the demands placed upon women in familial relationships, and explores the controversial topic of euthanasia. Unlike the response to her first novel, critics hailed One True Thingas astounding and triumphant, and that same year, a major feature film version of the novel appeared.
Commercial Success, Mixed Critical Response
Quindlen’s exploration of controversial issues and secrets reappeared in her third novel, Black and Blue (1998), which followed another children’s book and two coffee-table books with photographer Nick Kelsh. Black and Blue recounts the story of Fran and Bobby Benedetto’s painful and turbulent marriage. Literary critics were more pleased with Black and Blue than her previous two novels, and the novel was commercially a bestseller. It became a television movie in 1999.
Quindlen continued her success across writing genres. In 2000, she published A Short Guide to a Happy Life, which was an expanded version of a commencement speech. With that work, Quindlen became the first writer ever to have books appear on the fiction, nonfiction, and self-help New York Times bestseller lists. Following this book, Quindlen wrote another novel, Blessings, which was published in 2002. Blessings is the story of a nontraditional family forged after an older woman and her handyman find an abandoned baby. Critical response was split over the merits of the novel and, as a result, it was not as successful as Quindlen’s other novels. In the wake of Blessings, Quindlen continued to produce prolific commentary in many prestigious publications and magazines and a novel about family life in New York, Rise and Shine, in 2006.
An outspoken and influential commentator, Quin-dlen has secured her place among the important voices in the late twentieth century. Her fiction also maintains a strong social agenda, and throughout all of her novels, she emphasizes the importance of realistic and believable characters. Her novels have drawn legions of loyal readers; and critics, while sometimes not entirely impressed with Quindlen s plots, almost always praise her ability to articulate family life, and to create interesting stories and strong characters.
Works in Literary Context
As a journalist, Quindlen is known for her unique strategy of covering national issues with a focus on domestic and daily events that are interpreted from a feminist perspective. For instance, she based a discussion of the economic recession of the 1980s on the household grocery budgets of families, arguing that the checkout counter was a worthy indicator of the economy. Quindlen s fiction employs the same type of strategy: she explores larger social and cultural issues by focusing on daily or domestic events, which are often semi-autobiographical. Her fiction is also deeply informed by her experience in journalism. Quindlen often transforms the issues and observations she comments on in her columns into the subjects of her fiction.
Quindlen’s focus on family relationships and her concern with exploring women s lives fits within a twentieth-century extension of the domestic fiction genre. Principally regarded as a nineteenth century genre, domestic fiction (sometimes referred to as ”sentimental fiction ) is a category of novel that is usually popular among female readers and depicts family life and the relationships of a female heroine. For instance, Object Lessons focuses on the twelve-year-old Maggie Scanlan and her struggle to interpret the conflicts in her family that have resulted from her father s rebellion against his own father, as well as come to terms with her newfound interest in boys, her cousin’s unwed pregnancy, and her difficult mother. In One True Thing, Quindlen focuses on a self-absorbed, ambitious magazine journalist who is manipulated into caring for her dying mother by a father whom the narrator has always idolized. Some of Quindlen’s works are semi-autobiographical, and add elements of memoir to give her stories more depth. Her journalistic eye for observation and keen detail also enables her to develop domestic fiction that is strikingly realistic. As a twentieth-century author of domestic fiction, Quindlen is very conscious about utilizing a feminist perspective in her works. Quindlen is also unafraid of focusing on challenging subjects in her domestic fiction, such as abortion and euthanasia, and she also imagines non-traditional family structures.
Works in Critical Context
Quindlen has enjoyed tremendous commercial success, but her fiction has often received mixed critical reviews. It has been criticized for being too pedantic it its examination of social issues, and too simplistic in its examination of characters and relationships. Yet many critics view Quindlen as a keen observer of detail and remark on her ability to translate the observations on life and culture she made famous in her columns to successful literature. Commenting on the realistic way she depicts family triumphs as well as struggles, critic Laura Green writes, ”Quindlen balances her readers’ longing to experience the protagonist’s triumph with the knowledge that to end by simply rewarding virtue would betray the very realism we enjoy.”
One True Thing
Quindlen’s second novel received much more praise than her first. One True Thing, the story of a daughter who gives up her prestigious career to care for her dying mother, left critics impressed with Quindlen’s ability to capture the nuances of family life and investigate the dimensions of the complex relationships she established. Author and critic Michael Dorris writes, ”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.” Some critics, however, found the novel lacking in depth and the ability to provide insight on its subjects. In his New York Times Book Review review of the novel, Frederick Busch writes, ”It will, at times, feel like a good conversation about daughters and parents. But it will not offer a way of saying what had seemed unsayable to and about and for the dead.”
Black and Blue
Despite some criticisms that Quindlen’s novel did not provide enough depth in her treatment of the abusive relationship at the center of Black and Blue, the novel was generally received well and sold well commercially. Many critics lauded Quindlen’s ability to deal with extremely complex social and emotional issues in the novel. As Faith McLellan observes, ”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.”’ Critic Autumn Stephens notes that Quindlen ”sweeps aside sound-bite cliches on the subject of spousal abuse,” and makes the following appraisal about the novel: ”Sensitive, suspenseful and haunting, Black and Blue depicts the unique travails—and also the unexpected triumphs—of a ‘recovering battered woman.”’
- Stephens, Autumn. ”Quindlen Gets Inside the Head of a Battered Woman.” San Francisco Chronicle (January 25, 1998): RV-1.
- Busch, Frederick. ”A Death in the Family.” The New York Times Book Review (September 11, 1994): 11.
- Dorris, Michael. ”Finding Truth as Death Looms.” Los Angeles Times (August 25, 1994): E6.
- Fenichel, Marilyn. ”Spokeswoman for Our Time.” Psychology Today no. 4 (April 1989): 71.
- McDaniel, Maude. ”Anna Quindlen Writes a Wise Coming-Of-Age Novel.” Chicago Tribune Books (April 21 1991): 6.
- McLellan, Faith. ”Where the Bruises and the Hurts Live On.” Lancet (1998): 1970.
- Paley, Maggie. ”Taking Flight.” The New York Times Book Review (February 8, 1998): 11.
- Quindlen, Anna and Rose A. Adkins. ”Reporting the Details of Life.” Writer’s Digest 73, no. 3 (1993): 35-37.
- Quindlen, Anna and Marilyn Gardner. ”Columnist Anna Quindlen.” Christian Science Monitor 80, no. 223 (1988): 21-22.
- Quindlen, Anna and Alexander M. Santora. ”Anna Quindlen: From the ’60s to the ’90s.” Commonweal 119, no. 3 (February 14, 1992): 9-13.
- Quindlen, Anna and Sybil Steinberg. ”Anna Quindlen.” Publishers Weekly 238, no. 13 (March 15, 1991): 40-41.
- Green, Laura. ”Black and Blue, by Anna Quindlen.” Salon. Retrieved November 23, 2008, from http:// www.salon.com/books/sneaks/1998/02/ 10review.html. Last updated February 10, 1998.
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