135 Journals Book Club: Still Life With Breadcrumbs by Anna Quindlen

21 May

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I guess George Flegel was also teed off that he was left with all the dishes in his 1635 “Still Life with Stag Beetle” (courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

Still Life with Breadcrumbs is a novel that is written with such tightness, and works so well that at the end of it, I had to open it up and start over to see if it was as good as I thought it was. And it was. I don’t necessarily think it is a classic that will live forever—but I do think it is a novel that asked questions and answered them, that created appealing characters whose rightness or wrongness for each other was instantly clear, and that it created a world that made sense and which left the reader completely satisfied. It also contained a lot of unpretentiously stated wisdom that was resonant with the characters and the lessons they had learned through their lives. At the heart of this book is an inevitable-but-how? romance between Rebecca Winters, a 60-year-old divorced photographer from NYC who had fallen on hard times and moved to a dumpy cabin in upstate New York in order to be able to rent out her own lovely New York apartment so she could save money to pay for her mother’s nursing home bills and various other expenses, and Jim Bates, a 44-year-old roofer who is so much more than a roofer. Rebecca and Jim meet at the beginning of this book, when she is confronted with one of those problems you don’t find on the Upper West Side—raccoons in the attic. Jim Bates, who is known for his ability to find things. He is pleasant and interesting in a low-key manner. Oh yeah, ladies. We know this guy. He fixes everything, he’s caring, he notices how good you look in your sloppiest clothes, but none of your annoying habits ( “Oh, I see you like putting PEANUT BUTTER in the REFRIGERATOR,” for instance), and who is handy with a snowplow just when you were getting cabin fever. Anyway, Jim eventually he offers her a part-time gig sitting with him in trees while he identifies particular tagged animals and she takes pictures of them. They get to know each other through thermoses of of sweet coffee (brought by him, of course) and long hours of chitchat—though they actually reveal little about the secret family responsibilities and worries that wear them down.

Meanwhile, she, who fits the classic novelistic trope of “Woman comes to town” starts exploring her new world. She takes hikes and finds strange little crosses, some decorated with trophies of photographs, and takes pictures of them. She gets to know the garrulous but loyal Sarah, owner of a local shop called “Tea for Two” that serves English food such as mouthwatering scones and Toad in a Hole, and soon, Rebecca is a regular, through Sarah’s no-good husband Kevin is a bit off-putting.

In addition to sitting in trees, reading the Classics and taking pictures, she reflects back on her own life,, about her former marriage to a selfish but glamorous English, Peter Symington. It was after a dinner party where he rudely went to bed without helping, AS USUAL, that she snapped a photo she called “Still Life with Breadcrumbs” of the mess. It was the first photo that made her famous but it would not be the last. She became wealthy and famous from her photos, (which would thoroughly irritate Peter, Despite living with the evil Brit (I’ve seen movies—aren’t they all?). But now, the cash flow is a cash drip and New York is no fun. So now she was trying to make do and sacrifice. It is always interesting to hear how people struggle with money, and it is also interesting to see how they cope with a new environment. And, it is intriguing to read about any artist’s “process.” For someone like Rebecca, al lot of her art comes from looking and looking until she captures the right moment. What that moment means remains mysterious—she is not a woman for putting things into words. She just has a feeling. And that is much like Jim. At a meeting of a fancy Women’s League where she is invited to speak, she is asked. “Could you tell us the secret to your success?”

“The secret is that there is no secret,” she replied. “That’s true of almost everything, in my opinion. Everything is accidental.”

When I read those lines, I almost laughed. For a character like Rebecca, whose calling is to look, that is true. But for the novelist who creates her world, NOTHING is accidental. There is a saying about playwriting that if there is a gun in the first scene, then the gun needs to go off by the end of the play. The very first SENTENCE of Still Life with Breadcrumbs, is “A few minutes after two in the morning, Rebecca Winter woke to the sound of a gunshot.”

In fact, one of the most interesting features of this book is just how different objects, thematic ideas, etc., come together by the end of the book. Just for the fun of it, I will share a few themes to look for: crosses, ladders, white flag, dog, houses, England, guns, money, ways of seeing, Mary Cassatt, thingsthat happen by accident.

There are many other appealing features of the book. Minor characters are drawn with efficiency, charm, and consistency. Rebecca’s evil ex-husband who taught about the erotic world of the medieval era is known as “Professor Porn.” Rebecca’s parents always had a fear of space heaters (emphasizing their urban side). Rebecca’s appealing son Ben is characterized by his dialog—“Don’t go all Lady Chatterly on me, Mom,” he says after learning of Jim. The chapter headings are succinct, colloquial, and delightful. For example: “How she Wound Up There—the Inspirational Version.” “Get a Job” “This is How These Things Happen—Part 1” (and 2).

I have always loved Anna Quindlen’s writing, ever since she wrote essays about life and parenthood for the New York Times. Back then, I lived in Hoboken, NJ, and so did she. I always dreamed I would run into her but never did. I wanted to thank her for her writing, if we had somehow met at Lisa’s Deli or Fiori’s Mozzarella shop where a wooden sign read, “The Taste of a Good Mozzarella is Remembered Long after The Price is Forgotten” (so true). But I can thank her now, for a thoroughly enjoyable book that was a treat from start to finish.

Many of the chapter headings in Still Life with Breadcrumbs could be used as writing prompts. Try using one of the three above–“How she Wound Up There—the Inspirational Version.” “Get a Job” “This is How These Things Happen—Part 1” (and 2) and write your own story.

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