Anna Quindlen on Staying Happily Married

The bestselling author and columnist has a new novel out that tackles motherhood and marriage. Hannah Seligson talks to her about handling relationships in fiction.

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Anna Quindlen has been saying what’s on our minds for years. Her “Life” column in The New York Times evokes conversations we might have had with girlfriends on the phone. In Every Last One—Quindlen’s sixth novel—she’s saying what we’ve been thinking since September 11, as she takes on illusions about security and control and how life can unravel at any second, even if we take all the “right” precautions.

“This is the first generation of human beings that seems surprised by mortality,” Quindlen told The Daily Beast. “We take care, and thus, convince ourselves we are invulnerable.” It’s from this premise, that life is perilous and keeping kids safe is sometimes a delusion, that Quindlen starts spinning the narrative about Mary Beth Latham and her three children. Her husband, Glen, an ophthalmologist, bristles at Mary Beth’s overly attentive parenting style, but Mary Beth doesn’t believe there is such a thing as too much fretting over your children. They are her center of gravity. Still, Quindlen must have been thinking of Leo Tolstoy’s “All happy families are alike” when she created the iconic Latham family, because they seem, well, like any other happy family.

“Either you’re walking around holding hands, or you’re on the verge of divorce. All long-married people know that’s nonsense.”

The prose pulls the reader along like a tugboat on a placid lake. Be forewarned, there’s a lot of exposition—almost the first half of the novel—but you’ll appreciate all of the emotional connections Quindlen has built between the reader and the Lathams and their circle of friends, especially when you reach the second half of the book. This is where Quindlen hits her elegant stride. Writing about tragedy, loss, grief, and devastation is Quindlen’s calling, and she’s answered it. Revealing any of the plot from the second half of the book would be a disservice to the reader. If you can avoid it, don’t even look at the flap copy. You’ll want to experience the events as a genuine surprise, like the characters do.

Every Last One is told in the first person, from the perspective of Mary Beth. “I resonated to Mary Beth Latham right away, felt that I knew her,” Quindlen said. There are traces of the quiet desperation that are reminiscent of the The Feminine Mystique and Revolutionary Road. When asked if those works crossed her mind when she writing, Quindlen said, “Obviously my life experience, and thus my work, is suffused with the history of being female in America.” But Quindlen doesn’t get archetypal with Mary Beth—she doesn’t present her as a Stepford wife or a bad mother. Yes, she worries about her son Max’s moodiness and whether Ruby, her daughter, is eating enough (she had an eating disorder), and there’s always some kind of delicious casserole baking in the oven, but Mary Beth is not part of the potted history of female characters. “It’s hard to write a novel about motherhood without creating either a plaster saint or a punching bag. I’m sick and tired of both those ways of looking at the very difficult, joyful, and complicated task on which I’ve personally been laboring for the last quarter-century,” Quindlen said.

Quindlen observes Mary Beth through two very different windows. In one, we see her chauffeuring, cooking, and worrying over every little mood swing, but then we get Mary Beth’s marvelously candid and astute voice communicating her inner world, admitting that yes, she does play favorites. “I’m often distressed by the difference between my feelings for Ruby and those I have for her brothers,” Mary Beth says. She admits that when her kids go to camp it doesn’t pull her emotional levers. “When your children are away for the summer, public expectations are twofold. Other mothers assume you will feel incomplete or liberated, depending on their own situations. I feel neither.” Quindlen likes to dabble in our emotional palette, taking on the expectations of how we are “supposed” to feel and how those expectations can create a mental prison. “America is a happiness culture. The preferred answer to the question ‘How are you?’ is always ‘fine’ and the answer to the question ‘How are the kids?’ is supposed to be ‘great!’ I think that produces its own kind of desperation, especially for women, who yearn to be emotionally open,” Quindlen said.

So is Quindlen trying to shake out some truths about motherhood in Every Last One? You bet. “Almost everyone lies about motherhood,” Quindlen said. “They lie about how glorious it is, how onerous it is. They lie about children who can speak in complete sentences when they are a year old.” As for Quindlen’s own thoughts on parenting, “So-called helicopter parenting is self-defeating. If your goal is to build strong, resilient, interesting people from the ground up, the only way to do that is to give them enough rope to sometimes make their own mistakes.” It’s a lesson Quindlen received firsthand. “I got lucky: My eldest child, at a very young age, basically said to me in no uncertain terms, this far and no farther. Saved me from myself. Saved his brother and sister from myself, too.”

And it’s a major theme of the book—balancing oversight with independence. Mary Beth is always trying to figure out the steps to the elusive parenting dance of approach and retreat. Should she force Max to get off the couch the summer he comes home from camp with a broken arm? Or should she leave him alone to sulk and brood? Does Kiernan, the boy who has fallen hard for Ruby, just have a case of puppy love, or is it bordering on something more dangerous? Like many mothers, Mary Beth is grappling with the desire to control and the insight that controlling your children is a fool’s errand. After the cataclysmic event that takes place in the second half the book, the impulse is to point fingers, but you can’t because Quindlen has spun such a deep and rich story that there are no simple answers about balancing oversight and independence.

Quindlen is exceedingly talented at parsing subtle dynamics, the quiet moments of domesticity that usually get glossed over for the grander stuff. She showcases this skill particularly well when she portrays Mary Beth and Glen’s marriage. Quindlen said she was avoiding the bifurcated view our culture has of relationships. “Either you’re walking around holding hands, or you’re on the verge of divorce. All long-married people know that’s nonsense,” she said. Mary Beth and Glen’s marriage isn’t particularly amorous or, for that matter, acrimonious. “I wanted to show the kind of marriage that has its ebbs and flows,” Quindlen said. Mary Beth and Glen are simultaneously close, distant, friends, and lovers; they fight and joke in equal measure. They feel genuine in their quirks, idiosyncrasies, and the tacit understanding that they are in it—life, parenting, and marriage—together.

There’s a lot of the human condition charted in Every Last One. It’s a deeply moving and at times haunting novel about how situations can blindside us and how the most imminent threats are right under our nose. It will leave you feeling raw as you linger over the scenes days after you’ve finished it—the ultimate litmus test of a great book. In her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion wrote, “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.” Quindlen knows it, and knows how to reach us.

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Hannah Seligson is a journalist. Her book, A Little Bit Married: How to Know When It’s Time to Walk Down the Aisle or Out the Door, which spotlights and uncovers a major trend in dating today, the long-term unmarried relationship, was published by Da Capo Press this winter.