October 17, 1994 12:00 PM

IT COULDN’T HAVE BEEN A GOOD feeling. One day last month, Anna Quindlen announced that she was leaving her coveted spot as a New York Times columnist to write fiction; two days later a reviewer in the Times weighed in on her new novel, One True Thing, thusly: “The banality of the language is matched by the banality of the ideas it expresses.” Admits Quindlen: “I wasn’t thrilled.”

But second-guess her decision? Not a chance. After almost 25 years in the newspaper business (“Isn’t that amazing? It makes me sound much older than 42”), one of the most respected female columnists in America—the woman many had pegged as a future managing editor of the Newspaper of Record—feels confident that it’s time to move on. “I love writing columns,” says Quindlen, who will continue turning them out from her home office in Hoboken, N.J., until December. “But 750 words is a very small sweater to wear. A novel is like a big coat—you can cover a lot with it.”

Besides, she’s hardly the sort to let criticism stop her. Since the mid-1980s, when she began musing on domestic life in a Times column called Life in the 30s, Quindlen, a mother of three, has inspired both devotion and irritation among readers. Her fans like the personal, female sensibility she brings to mainstream journalism—the way she will analyze the Persian Gulf War, for instance, from the perspective of a worried parent. Her critics find fault for the same reason. “I don’t read them regularly anymore, but I think her columns are written down to women,” says Karen Lehrman, who wrote a 1991 New Republic piece that crystallized the anti-Quindlen sentiment. “It’s as if women can’t think of things in an abstract way—it all has to be grounded in their own experience.”

Quindlen makes no apologies. “In public discourse, it’s implied that emotions are suspect—yet people make personal and even policy decisions on the basis of them all the time,” she says. “I think the devaluing of emotional content is basically a devaluing of women.”

It’s an idea that lies at the heart of One True Thing. The semiautobiographical story of Ellen Gulden, an ambitious young journalist who leaves the big-city fast track to nurse her dying mother, the novel traces Ellen’s slow awakening to her stay-at-home mother’s virtues. Warm, nurturing Kate Gulden ultimately proves stronger, and smarter, than the coolly intellectual father Ellen has idolized. Times opinion notwithstanding, the book has won some enthusiastic reviews, has been optioned by Hollywood and is now one of the 15 best-selling novels in the country. “And women say to me, ‘Your book made me think about my relationship with my mother,’ which really makes me happy,” says Quindlen.

The oldest of five children in an Irish-Italian Catholic family, Quindlen grew up outside Philadelphia, acing school to please her father, a management consultant (“nothing like the father in the book,” Quindlen says) and basking in her housewife-mother’s unconditional love. “She was the kind of mother where everybody would come to the house because Mrs. Quindlen didn’t care if you messed up the living room,” her daughter says. “She was the greatest.”

An “antsy kid,” as she puts it, “with a fresh mouth that I’ve since made pay,” Anna was popular and clever—and driven enough that she twice attempted suicide as a teenager, simply, she has said, to escape the pressures she put on herself. She recovered her equilibrium quickly, landing her first newspaper job, as a summer copy girl at the New Brunswick, N.J., Home News, at 18, and entering Barnard College as an English major that fall. And then the world slipped out from under her: At age 40, Prudence Quindlen was dying of ovarian cancer.

“There’s a grand tradition in Irish Catholic families of daughters sacrificing themselves for the good of the whole,” says Quindlen, who, like Ellen Gulden, went home to tend her mother during her last five months. The experience has defined her life. “I didn’t have to excavate very far when I was writing One True Thing,” she says. “You don’t forget the way cancer smells, and sounds, and looks, and progresses.” A frailer daughter might have been derailed, but, says Quindlen, “it railed me. When I went back to school, I was a grown-up.”

And one with firsthand knowledge that time is precious. She finished college in three years, falling in love along the way with Columbia student Gerald Krovatin. “I liked her initially because she was wearing the shortest skirt in the room,” says Krovatin, 42, bearing out Quindlen’s assessment, of him: “He’s a no-nonsense guy. We’d go to a foreign film, and I’d be prepared to walk out and make meaningless comments about mortality, and he’d say, ‘What was that all about?’ I found it very refreshing.”

The pair married in 1978, by which time Quindlen’s career was already in high gear. After a two-year stint as a reporter at the New York Post, she joined the Times in 1977, working her way up from the metro desk to the About New York column (where she turned a wry eye on everything from barber-shop chatter to first grade in the city) to a deputy editorship. She exulted in it all—and yet she quit. “Because my mother died young, it’s especially important to me to spend a lot of time with my kids,” says Quindlen, who resigned from the Times to write her first novel, the best-selling Object Lessons, in 1985, when her son Quin, now 11, was a year old and Christopher, now 9, was a newborn. “Also, it took me by surprise how much I loved motherhood. I was convinced I wouldn’t have kids. I used to say to my husband, ‘I have a child. Its name is Newspaper.’ ”

But the Times wasn’t ready to lose her, and executive editor Abe Rosenthal asked Quindlen to write a column from home about “the things I was talking about with my friends on the telephone,” she says. Writ large in Life in the 30s, those things—being pregnant in New York City, her husband’s dislike of flannel nightgowns, the joy of seeing her son learn to read—helped create the still-common perception that Quindlen is some kind of überwoman: perfect wife to Krovatin (now a trial attorney), perfect mother, perfect journalist. “No one’s having it all!” Quindlen sighs. “I’m pretty happy, but I spend every day thinking about what’s fallen through the cracks. Was I short-tempered with the kids? Did I not give a fine enough polish to my column because I had to pick up somebody at a play date? You’re always robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

She quit the Times again in 1988, just after daughter Maria was born, and was lured back in 1990 with a place on the so-called op-ed page, pantheon of the Times”s column-writing gods—and infrequent goddesses. “It was the ultimate I-am-an-imposter job at first,” says Quindlen. “When you wind up on the same page with Russell Baker….”

The only female voice on the op-ed page, Quindlen has made a point of addressing topics traditionally considered “women’s issues”—abortion rights in particular. Imposter or no, she won a Pulitzer Prize for her nationally syndicated columns in 1992, and she receives hundreds of letters from readers each week. Often, as she shuttles her children to school or runs errands on the streets near her cozily appointed Hoboken brown-stone, admirers will stop to chat. “We were at a U2 concert,” says her husband, “and some guy comes up and says, ‘Miss Quindlen, thank you for your words.’ So I started to call her the Word. You’ve got Bono, the Edge, the Word——”

It’s a lot to give up, being the Word. But chances are, Quindlen won’t really have to. “I’d like to be considered as good a novelist as I have been a columnist,” she says. “I’ll just do my work, and bide my time.”

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