What I heard about Anna Quindlen’s Still Life With Bread Crumbs last year made me suspect that I would like it—and I was correct!
Still Life With Bread Crumbs is what I call a “quiet read,”—stories that focus more on a character’s inner life than on the externalities of that life. The external circumstances are still important but the emphasis is more on the character’s inner landscape, and how that changes as a result of the outside influences. Moreover, these influences tend to be more the slice-of-life variety than something exceptional. It’s almost like the author is parting the curtain on the character’s life for the period of the story.
Still Life With Bread Crumbs follows the life of Rebecca Winter in her 60th year. Quindlen’s revelations of Rebecca’s past (a New Yorker by birth), especially Rebecca’s marriage with a supercilious professor (a British academician), evokes the image of a very specific type of woman, a woman whose experience of life falls within a clearly circumscribed circle even though she happens to be an artist.
Broke, alone and feeling distinctly washed-up Rebecca is a photographer past her heyday—or as her son jokes, “the artist formerly known as Rebecca Winter.” Quindlen is really good at including little details that solidify this image of Rebecca as a certain type of woman in the reader’s mind. Only, as you continue to read, you come to realize, as does Rebecca herself, that “[h]er biography had all the trappings of sophistication but no actual sophistication at all.”
Am I making it sound too dry? Or too cerebral? It isn’t. Rebecca’s coming into her own as an artist and as a woman is heartfelt.
She had shot to fame with a series of photographs that in the eyes of the world “turned the impedimenta and the minutiae of women’s lives into unforgettable images.” For Rebecca however, her art is more “accidental” than the premeditated artistry that such a felicitation would seem to suggest:
Talking about art requires artists to sound purposeful and sure of themselves, but she’d never felt that way. Over the years she’d made up a lot of reasons because people didn’t seem to like the arbitrariness of the reality. They also didn’t believe that she’d simply photographed what was already there—a bottle lying on its side with a puddle of olive oil shimmering along its curved lip, a handful of greasy forks glistening in the overhead lights, and of course what was later still called Still Life with Bread Crumbs, a vaguely Flemish composition of dirty wineglasses, stacked plates, the torn ends of two baguettes, and a dish towel singed at one corner by the gas stove.
(I have no clue about art but I think I would very much like a piece like Quindlen describes here. There’s something inherently appealing about it.)
Rebecca’s (and Quindlen’s) insistence that art is as much about being in the right place at the right time as about anything else really resonates with me.
As she begins taking photographs of a series of crosses that she keeps coming across, Rebecca vocalizes that:
She had not labored over them, or transformed them with the gift of her eye, at least not so she could tell. She just felt them.
This. . . feeling, this recognition of the ordinary being suffused with the luminous, reminded me of a line from a Marilynne Robinson interview that really struck me:
Cultures cherish artists because they are people who can say, Look at that. And it’s not Versailles. It’s a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it.
Interwoven through Rebecca’s rekindling as an artist is the story of her unexpected romance with Jim Bates. Jim is decent, kind, and “the first man [Rebecca had] ever been with who had calluses.”
My favourite scene between the two is probably when Jim kisses Rebecca to her utter surprise:
“This is ridiculous. How old are you?”
“I was 44 last month,” he finally said, putting his glass down emphatically.
“Oh my God.” . . . “I am 60 years old.”
“Right. So what? You look great.” . . .
“That was not why I told you how old I was. It was so you would understand how ridiculous it would be to— ”
“Ludicrous. Hell, that’s even worse than ridiculous,” he said, and . . . walked back out into the snow. . . .
For most of her life she had not been what anyone would call an emotional person, but at odd, quiet, unexpected times . . . sentiment got the better of her.
“Oh my goodness,” she said and burst into tears, and sobbed loudly. . . .
Then the dog stepped back, sat down at attention, and let out one sharp bark. In a moment she heard the sound he’d heard. . . .
“This is ludicrous,” Jim said, and without moving removing his parka he put his arms around her and kissed her and kissed her, wet and cold and covered with snow as he was.
That use of ludicrous makes me chuckle, not in a laugh-out-loud way but in a quiet, life-can-be-unexpectedly-funny way. In fact there’s a thread of of wry humor running throughout the story.
I very much enjoyed how Quindlen conveys that love is love, no matter the age. The scenes between Jim and Rebecca are infused with that “new love” feel with all its attendant hopes, and anxieties. Let me be clear that romance is not the main focus of the story—Rebecca is. But that’s what makes the romance more interesting, embedded as it is in the larger context of Rebecca’s life:
One day she had been out walking and she had wondered whether she’d become a different person in the last year . . . Then when she really thought about it she realized she’d been becoming different people for as long as she could remember but had never really noticed, or had put it down to moods, or marriage, or motherhood. The problem was that she’d thought that at a certain point she would be a finished product. Now she wasn’t sure what that might be, especially when she considered how sure she had been about it at various times in the past, and how wrong she’d been.
If that sounds too expository for your tastes, well, this might not be the book for you. This is, after-all, a parting of the curtain on Rebecca Winter’s 60th year of life.