Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Still Life with Bread Crumbs, by Anna Quindlen

Rebecca Winter is--or, perhaps more accurately, was--a successful photographer. Her Kitchen Counter series of photographs, particularly the image Still Life with Bread Crumbs, made her famous and wealthy in her 30s. Her success did not sit well with her professor husband (who seems able only to stay married to any woman for 10 years), and Rebecca moved out, bought her own apartment on Central Park, and raised their son Ben on her own. While she had other professional successes, by the time Ben has grown up and she has hit the age of 60, however, her work has fallen out of style, and she is struggling financially. In order to meet her expenses, including paying for her mother's assisted living facility, she rents out her Manhattan apartment and moves to a run-down cottage upstate.

Life in the country is unnerving, but Rebecca makes several friends, including Jim Bates, the roofer who helps her get an invading raccoon out of her attic. Jim also sets her up with a weekend job helping him track and document various bird species. She is appalled by the fact that she accepts the $200/day stipend offered--and that it makes a difference in the financial problems that provide the background noise in her head. She adopts a stray dog and begins photographing him and selling the photographs in her friend Sara's tea room. While her agent is infuriated that Rebecca is selling work without her assistance, and at a very low price, this income also helps Rebecca meet her obligations.  She also discovers a series of small "altars" in the woods--crosses displayed with such personal items as a card, a photograph, a trophy, and a yearbook. These, too, she photographs, quickly realizing this may be some of the best work of her career. The new directions her work is taking cause her to reflect on the extent to which her earlier work was largely unconscious. The Kitchen Counter series came about in a moment of rage at her husband, and other work was equally unplanned.

Jim becomes an important part of Rebecca's new life (what I think of as a July-October romance), but then he "disappears" and Rebecca does not know why. This is where I found the plot becoming somewhat unbelievable  Sara is perhaps the most talkative woman in all of New York and it is not possible that she would not have mentioned the precipitating event to Rebecca (there is a conversation in which she starts to talk about it and then stops--but this did not convince me). A series of unlikely events ensues, including the discovery of an antique desk worth hundreds of thousands and the killing off of an inconvenient husband who must be disposed of before everyone important to Rebecca can have a happy future.

In Still Life with Bread Crumbs, Anna Quindlen has created a situation that I think many single women fear--the loss of financial stability (after all, even Oprah has said she is afraid she'll end up as a bag lady). She has also created an interesting sometimes frustrating central character, whose early weeks in the cabin are classic "roughing it" stories. I appreciated the examination of Rebecca's life as an artist, albeit one who seems to have gone through much of her career in something of a haze. While the happy wrapping up of the story makes for a pleasant ending, it's a bit too neat, not to mention infeasible. I enjoyed the book, but I felt slightly letdown at the end.

Favorite passages:
Talking about art requires artists to sound purposeful and sure of themselves, but she'd never felt that way. . . . Once Rebecca had read an essay in which a feminist theorist posited that the word still was obviously a way of suggesting how empty the existence of the average America woman was, that the bread crumbs were an allusion to Hansel and Gretel, leaving a trail so someone could find you, rescue you, keep you from being eaten alive.  Rebecca had been amazed at how much could be divined from a photograph she had snapped unthinkingly in a haze of fatigue overlaid with unacknowledged anger. . .

As with many marriages, hers was based on essential misconceptions.

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