Still Life with Bread Crumbs, by Anna Quindlen
by Robert A. Parker
From the moment Rebecca Winter awakens in her rustic upstate cottage in the middle of the night, thinking she has heard a gunshot, I was in that dark cottage and in the mind of this woman—and was committed to this 2014 novel. Because it quickly caught her fear, her questioning, her uncertainty about why she was in this cottage in this godforsaken town where she knew no one.
Indeed, loneliness is a minor theme of this novel, underpinning the empty life of this sixty-year-old photographer who was once famous but now is almost ignored. She became famous for a photograph that gives this novel its title, part of a series of kitchen counter photographs that caught the public’s eye, especially feminists, and made her wealthy. But the money has run out now, she is divorced from an egotistical man who never appreciated her, and she has now fled Manhattan to balance her budget and revive her creative juices—renting this cottage that has no heat, no telephone, little electricity, and a bad roof.
Rebecca becomes such an interesting woman, as she ponders her loss of fame, deals with her house, and wanders the woods with her camera, that I had as little need as she in wandering into town. And even less interest in getting to know her upbringing, her fickle husband, her Manhattan apartment, her film-maker son, and her now elderly parents. Because these scenes which fleshed out her past interrupted the flow of this work. But apparently Quindlen likes these abrupt shifts in time, for she says she is going to use this technique in subsequent fiction. I did not need such flashbacks, however, to sense the depths of this woman. Instead, I wanted to leave the past each time, and follow her as she adapted to her new rural life.
Rebecca does meet a roofer, Jim Bates, a tea shop proprietor Sarah, and Tad, a former boy soprano but now a party clown; and we sense something will come of these relationships. But more interesting are the tiny white crosses, each with a personal memento, that Rebecca encounters and photographs in the woods. Worried about her bank account, she also takes on a job photographing migrating birds, working alongside Jim who has volunteered to track them. Their conversations suggest a promising relationship may develop. She also takes in a stray dog, and as she begins photographing him one senses her creative juices beginning to flow.
And yet, too much background keeps slowing my interest. It is Rebecca and Jim I am interested in, and Rebecca and the town. They like her, and so do I. I do not need to know about Sarah’s husband, or even Tad’s unhappiness. What does keep me turning the pages are those white crosses. Who is leaving them around? What do they mean? And why, early on, did Jim spirit away one he found in the woods?
But finally, the plot clicks in. Rebecca and Jim spend a night together. But a misunderstanding then separates them. It is a conventional device, but both are likable people, and we want to see them back together. More plot mechanics take Rebecca to the funeral of her father, introduce a new agent for her, and take us to her grand opening at a gallery in Brooklyn. Each of these scenes works, not least the gallery opening because both Quindlen and Rebecca scorn the pretentious art world it represents.
And then comes the philosophical raison d’être for this novel. It is not about feminism. It is more about life alone, another’s life. It is about why the white crosses were set out. That they were personal. That they were an unspoken plea. And that Rebecca has taken their three-dimensional reality and reduced them to two-dimensional art, when: “They’re not just pictures,” Jim says. “They’re real…The point is…what they mean. Not what the pictures mean, what the things mean.” And we suddenly understand the solid reality Quindlen has implanted in this book, and why she has made her heroine a photographer.
The realization also comes to Rebecca. “She looked at the White Cross photographs again with her new knowledge about what had become before and after them, and instead of static images they seemed an infinite prolonging….She wondered if the great artists had ever considered this, da Vinci with the woman who would become Mona Lisa, Sargent with Madame X, whether they had ever considered the terrible eternity of immortality….
She sat in a chair in the dark, watching [Jim and the dog], and when she was tempted to use her camera, she was suddenly ashamed of herself for the very first time.”
It is a marvelous evocation of photography, indeed of all art. All artists. Even novelists. That we use life to create art. That life is real and art is not, and that we must not confuse the two. This is not to deny art its legitimacy. It is simply not to put it above man. I found this moment quite moving, surely because it made me more aware of my own photography.
In the background, Rebecca often refers to the women’s movement in describing her success. That she pointed her camera at commonplace subjects in the home, such as a new baby, or a kitchen. But I see this novel more as the portrait of an individual woman, not of a movement. What carries this work is Rebecca herself, her loneliness, her doubt, her independence, her conviction, her family responsibility, and her need for human contact. She is a believable human being, even a convincing lover, at 60, for a man of 45.
To sum up, this is an outstanding Quindlen novel. I remember my regret when she quit her New York Times column in order to write fiction. But she had that belief in herself that Rebecca has here. And like Rebecca’s, her decision was the right one. Like Rebecca, moreover, her approach to a novel here appears to change. The premise does not begin with a situation, a violent husband, a baby on the doorstep, but on the loneliness, the doubt, of her heroine. All develops from that. What she does retain is the detail, the tiny observation that reveals character, that captures a moment of time.
I look forward to the next Quindlen novel, knowing it will be filled with pertinent details, with personal strengths and weaknesses, and, one hopes, with a further comment on the human condition. (July, 2015)