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Books: Anna Quindlen’s ‘Still Life with Bread Crumbs’

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Anna Quindlen’s new novel, Still Life with Bread Crumbs, is so readable that it effortlessly draws us into the story of Rebecca Winter and her midlife crisis. New York readers will find every detail about Winter’s pre-crisis Upper West Side life pitch-perfect: the rendering of her family, which once had money but then doesn’t; an academic husband who once seemed wonderful but isn’t (he’s a put-down Englishman with a wandering eye who specializes in ever-younger wives); an adored son, and parents whom—as part of the sandwich generation—she is helping to support; a fantastic Central Park West apartment bought when her career was at its peak (“her greatest illiquid asset”), and that she can no longer afford.

Though few women in their sixties face Winter’s professional problems—early fame as a black-and-white photographer followed by a declining career, income, and creativity (“Ironically, great success made Rebecca less and less sure of herself “)—many of us can relate to her growing financial panic and obsession with making ends meet. When she leaves Manhattan so she can pay her bills from the rental income of her Central Park West apartment and wakes up in the crummy, isolated country cottage she’s rented and hears mysterious noises in the attic, we are gripped with empathy.

The picture couldn’t be clearer: once-famous artist and city girl, now 60, finds herself alone, lonely, on the verge of being broke, ill-equipped to deal with country life, creatively dry—and considered a has-been by her agent and the world of rich collectors and dealers who once hailed her “Kitchen Counter Series,” including her iconic Still Life With Bread Crumbs.  Her Still Life has been reproduced so often that few realize that her career has died and that she’s down to hundreds in her bank account.

How, one wonders, will she get herself out of this fix?

At first, scene-by-scene, we are with her. She needs to create some sort of routine in her life, so she replaces “a half hour on the elliptical machine in her building’s gym while watching the news on a flat screen overhead” with a coffee bar in the small town to which she’s moved. Called “Tea for Two (Or More),” it’s owned and run by Sarah Ashby, a sweet secondary character, who worships Rebecca and eases her into the ways and mores of small-town America.

Roofer Jim Bates is her other guide to the pleasures and troubles of rural America. He understands the world she knows nothing about—raccoons (which have invaded Rebecca’s attic), hunting, and working for the state wildlife agency.  Bates invites Rebecca to earn $200 a day by sitting in a tree with him and taking pictures of the birds he tracks. It’s a revelatory experience. “As she trained her camera on the bird it occurred to her that she had known much of life in two dimensions: raccoon, eagle. She had learned to know what things looked like but not what they really amounted to. This three-dimensional life was completely different. The hawk looked her right in the eye and it was as though she was seeing the bird, really seeing it, for the first time.”

The novel skips forward and back in time (and point of view), comparing and contrasting, in particular, a number of Thanksgiving dinners.  These Thanksgivings (1956, 1966, 1990 and 2010) provide snapshots of Rebecca’s family life—as a New York child, as a divorced woman visiting her parents in Florida, as a mother in the country with a turkey too large for her stove.  The tone is comic, capped by the introduction of an actual clown, “The Magnificent Mo Mo,” to the book’s cast of characters. 

Quindlen does ironic family comedy well. She is at her observational best in chapters that briefly return Rebecca to New York, whether to visit her demented mother, Bebe, and 91-year-old father, Oscar, or to an art opening.  But Quindlen strains credulity when she tries to convince us that everything ends happily for Rebecca—as artist, mother, daughter, friend, and lover—as well as every other character in the book.

Have we not read a lot of novels or seen a lot of movies about midlife women being left (or leaving), being broke (or almost broke), without a career (or one that was put on hold while raising kids, sustaining a marriage, etc.)?  It’s hardly a new subject, and one comes to this novel by such an accomplished writer as former New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen with high expectations. For this reviewer, expectations were not met.

Joanna Rakoff, writing in The New York Times Book Review, called Still Life a “marvelous, romantic comedy of manners,” as well as “a feminist novel for a post-feminist age.”  I would call it a light, easy-to-read, summer-vacation book in which every wrinkle is too easily ironed out.

Though, line-by-line, Quindlen is a perceptive writer and plot-savvy novelist who captures the dilemmas and quandaries of her generation, Still Life with Bread Crumbs is, basically, a Lifetime TV melodrama. By page 8, for example, it’s immediately clear that Jim Bates will be Rebecca’s love interest.  He’s younger, of course. By page 35, Rebecca is beginning to take long daily walks in the mountains, where, “In July, on the hottest day of the year,” she comes across her first cross, planted “in a blanket of low plants” with a small trophy at its base.  She photographs it. And all the other crosses she discovers. And, dear reader, we know that this will be her comeback exhibition. Who plants these crosses and how they relate to the rest of the story is a plot twist I will not divulge—but, again, one sees it coming.

In Still Life With Bread Crumbs we are in fantasyland, and my bet is that it will soon be turned into a Diane Keaton movie.  But then, haven’t we seen Keaton in just such a movie, with just such a young lover? Yes, we have.  But we never tire of such stories because, feminist or not, there is always a market in aging chick-lit for romantic happy endings.

The novel, Quindlen’s seventh, recently soared as high as No. 3 on The New York Times Best Seller List.  It may not meet my expectations but, clearly, it has found a receptive audience. 


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