Reviewed by Adèle Geras
Every so often, you come across a novel whose qualities appeal to you in a way that you can’t quite explain. Still Life with Breadcrumbs came to me as a proof and not a particularly grand proof either. The title struck me at once as both interesting and amusing. I liked the yoking together of a technical artistic term and something as insignificant as breadcrumbs. Then I noticed who the writer was. Anna Quindlen is someone whose previous books I’d read and enjoyed. Black and Blue, especially, was one of the earliest and best novels to explore brilliantly the subject of violence against women within a marriage.
I was predisposed, therefore, to like this book. By the time I’d finished it, I realised that even though it was a modest, unflashy novel, its qualities were so rare and so pleasant that they needed to be shared with as many people as possible.
This is the story of middle-aged Rebecca Winter, daughter of two extraordinary and demanding parents, mother of a son and divorced wife of an impossible husband. She was once a famous and wealthy photographer. Her impulsively-snapped shot of the detritus of a dinner party became as common on every possible kind of wall in every sort of house as the infamous photo of the bottom-scratching tennis player. When the novel opens, Rebecca’s work is no longer in fashion and she’s in urgent need of money for various reasons. She’s sublet her flat in Manhattan to raise cash and moved to the depths of the countryside. And there she finds inspiration for a very different variety of still life whose meaning and weight she doesn’t realise (and nor do we) till the very end of the book.
I’m giving away no more of the plot. All I will say is: this story is about “proper people in interesting situations” which is as good a definition of the kind of novel I like as I’ve ever come across. In passing, I ought to say that I also like thrillers and detective novels very much but there are many, many books full of special effects and whizzbangery which cause me to utter the words: life is too short and which bore me to sobs. I’m not keen on SF and I don’t understand spy books until they’re on TV and sometimes not even then. I am not mad keen on adventure and I don’t go a bundle on war books if the emphasis is on the weaponry. Indeed, books with weaponry are not my thing, generally speaking. There are exceptions to all the above but in general, my favourite fictions are about people: families, siblings, lovers, mothers and children, fathers and children, friends, and so forth and preferably in a place that’s so well-rendered I have no problem finding my way around it.
Still Life with Breadcrumbs has no special effects, just a quiet and careful description of things that turns a sharp light on faces, places, the weather, art and every variety of emotion and feeling. You will meet in its pages people you will like and admire, and others you’ll detest or feel sorry for. You’ll become absorbed in their lives and their troubles will matter to you. When something goes right for Rebecca (and rarely have I so thoroughly wanted things to turn out well for a fictional character or sympathised so much when they didn’t!) you’ll cheer.
I found this novel unputdownable while I was reading it and since I finished it, I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I read a great many reviews in newspapers and on the internet and I’ve not come across one of Still Life with Breadcrumbs. I have not been to Amazon to see what the reviewers say there but I wanted to leave that till I’d written this piece. Quindlen’s novel deserves attention. Don’t let the cover put you off. It’s very pretty but conveys almost nothing about what the book is like. Read it for yourself and see if you enjoy it as much as I did.
Adèle Geras is an author and one of the History Girls
Anna Quindlen, Still Life with Breadcrumbs (Hutchinson, 2014) 272 pages.
BUY in paperback at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)