Anna Quindlen’s Still Life with Bread Crumbs is one of those good-bad novels that could have been brilliant with some tweaking. It was longlisted for the Bailey Women’s Prize last year.
Qundlen, a much-beloved former New York Times and Newsweek columnist, has written seven novels. I read Blessings, a sentimental novel about the finding of a foundling and the rejuvenation of a community, for a book group. I cannot recommend it.
With the Bailey Women’s Prize nomination, I decided it was time to reevaluate her fiction.
There is much to admire about this smart book. In Still Life with Bread Crumbs, Quindlen’s terse style reflects the heroine’s merciless honesty and minimalist style. Rebecca Winter, an award-winning sixty-year-old photographer, can no longer afford her New York apartment. She has moved into a dark, uncomfortable cottage in the country and is unhappy. There is a raccoon in her attic. She doesn’t know how to spend her time in the country.
How can she earn money? The well has run dry. Rebecca’s art has been accidental. She photographs what she sees and afterwards sees what she has photographed. Her famous “Kitchen Counter” series was unplanned: she photographed the remains of a dinner party. The most famous of this series, “Still Life with Bread Crumbs,” has been reproduced as a poster. But people are no longer interested in her work. And she has bills: her mother is in a nursing home, she can barely afford her rent, and her royalties are diminishing.
Gradually, life in the small town revitalizes her energy. When she discovers crosses in the woods decorated with old family photos, trophies, and yearbooks, she begins to photograph them. The “White Cross” series renews her career.
She meets wonderful people: almost too wonderful.. There is Jim Bates, the hunky fortysomething roofer who also works for the State Wildlife Service tracking birds. There is Sarah, the Anglophile owner the Tea for Two (And More). There is Tad, a clown. And Rebecca begins to work part-time with Jim photographing birds for the Stae Wildlife Service.
But the last third of the book goes to hell. Rebecca has an affair with JIm. Yes, okay. Maybe this could happen. But probably as a one-night stand, right? Even beautiful women in their thirties and forties have trouble finding a man, because men tend to go younger. And Rebecca hasn’t even had plastic surgery!
Not only does Rebecca find love: almost everybody in the book couples.
Does every person in the world find love? In this book they do.
Still, the structure is surprisingly experimental and satisfying: chapters have titles like “How She Wound Up There–The Inspirational Version” and “How She Wound Up There–The Money Version.” There is a minimalist feeling about the book. A few of the chapters are very short. In “The White Cross Series–The Present,” there are two short paragraphs about her new photographs. In “The White Cross series–Much Later,” a short announcement tells us of the future of the photographs.
And I loved the descriptions of Rebecca’s photography.
She went back to the other cross, put down her camera on a flat rock, and circled the area, squinting at the ground. A yearbook often had the owner’s name embossed on the cover in gold leaf, but this one didn’t. The two pieces of the cross were held together with a short nail, and the centering wasn’t exact, so that one side of the crossbar extended farther than the other. The first time she’d just taken the photographs, but now she studied the tableau. It was a bit like one of those roadside shrines that appeared along the roadside when some teenager–it was always a teenager–crashed his car into a tree and died behind the wheel.
But the last third of the book turns saccharine. Why does Quindlen have to get sentimental? What is it about too, too happy endings? Did m-o-n-e-y dictate?
I found much of this delightful, but it could have been a really good book.