Katrina’s Review of: Quindlen, Anna. Still Life with Bread Crumbs. New York: Random House, 2014. 272 pages.
Surprisingly unfamiliar with Anna Quindlen’s prolific earlier prose when I first cracked open Still Life with Bread Crumbs, by the second page I realized what a gifted storyteller I had been missing out on. In an era when the lengthy ultra-long novel is trending, it’s a nice change of pace to read a tight, eloquently written narrative totaling less than 300 pages. With many novels these days spanning multiple generations or even straddling several centuries, an author that can quench a reader’s thirst with a plot that covers less than a year and contains no more characters than you can count on ten fingers is an impressive feat. Anna Quindlen’s latest novel accomplishes this with ease.
Still Life with Bread Crumbs is structured around the familiar and all-too-common premise of the successful career woman in the twilight of her career who sees her personal life crumbling around her in the wake of a difficult divorce. True, the topic at hand may not be many readers’ first choice for a novel that will transport them out of their mundane daily lives. Nevertheless, Quindlen’s sparing prose captures this story in a beautifully candid and powerful manner that had me engrossed within the first few pages. Still Life immerses us in the melancholy life of Rebecca Winter, an accomplished, once famous photographer who has slowly faded from the spotlight, her realization of her waning career coming too late for her to salvage her high profile Manhattanite lifestyle. The failure of her marriage to the ever-distant Brit Peter snuck up on her just as unexpectedly, and Rebecca has yet to find comfort in her solitude.
Quindlen’s novel is not about the downfall of yet another sad divorcee, however. Rather, Still Life depicts Rebecca’s path of self-discovery after moving out of her beloved Manhattan home and seeking refuge in a rented cabin in rural New York. Surrounded by silence for the first time in decades, Rebecca is finally forced to listen to her inner thoughts, to acknowledge the emptiness of her life in the city, filled with false friendships and never-ending social commitments. “It was funny, what friendship meant in Rebecca’s world,” Quindlen writes. “It came down to this: the kinds of people they considered friends they might not even actually see for a long long time.” She discovers a new type of friendship—more sincere, more authentic—after escaping from Manhattan, providing her with a glimpse into a different lifestyle that begins to intrigue her.
The reader does not become weighed down in Rebecca’s loneliness, however. Quindlen keeps her chapters brief and light, retelling the same anecdote from different perspectives, providing the reader with a nuanced, bird’s-eye view of the life that surrounds the protagonist. From the back-story of the stray dog who ends up finding a new home with Rebecca, to her new friend and lover Jim Bates’ day as it unfolds in parallel to her own, the reader is made privy to an omniscient narrative perspective that subtly foreshadows what is imminent in Rebecca’s life.
Quindlen’s portrayal of life in rural New York is straightforward and slightly comedic, fully embracing the gossip-prone nature of the small town through the nosey, outspoken coffeeshop owner Sarah as well as the unassuming generosity of the town roofer Jim (who later becomes romantically entangled with Rebecca). Yet what is even more powerful is the author’s portrayal of the complex evolution in Rebecca’s personal relationship with her own art form, photography. Inspired by the change of scenery and the diverse backdrops that the vast woods in her backyard afford her, Rebecca redoubles her efforts to capture a new series of photographs that speaks to her like her previous renowned series had done. Yet, after capturing several mysterious wooden crosses with the detritus of someone’s childhood mementoes, Rebecca’s distanced artistic perspective receives a startling jolt when she becomes aware of the heartrending significance of those images to someone close to her. It’s at this moment that her self-described distance between the two-dimensional images she captures through her lens and the three-dimensions of lived reality is shattered, and the humanity in her photographs finally becomes apparent to her.
It is the humanity in her own personal life that truly changes Rebecca, however. Finally feeling at home in her secluded cottage, Rebecca begins to shed the conservative outer layer that has sheltered her for so long, letting in raw emotions and a new love she hadn’t known she was even looking for. “Sometimes he came through the door,” and for Rebecca, “it was still a nice surprise, like unwrapping a present.” It is in these nice surprises that she finds that deep sense of contentment that had eluded her for so long. So she continues to let life unfold messily, candidly, before her. It is this refreshing portrait of a beautifully flawed woman that makes Still Life with Bread Crumbs a truly impactful novel.
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