A few minutes after two in the morning Rebecca Winter woke to the sound of a gunshot and sat up in bed.
So begins Anna Quindlen’s seventh novel. And after that opening you’re surely racing to your local bookshop and I can end my review here. No? Well here’s more reasons why you should read it:
Rebecca Winter, 60, photographer, has moved into a cottage in rural upstate New York. Not because she wants to ‘find herself’ as you’d expect most artistic types to be doing, she has a much more prosaic reason than that: she’s skint.
…if she rented out her apartment at the accepted exorbitant New York rate, she could afford the cottage, pay the fees for her mother’s nursing home, manage the premiums for her own health insurance, put something into her retirement account, help with her father’s rent, give a hand to her son, Ben, when he was short, and still put away some money each month for the surprises and emergencies that always seemed to arise.
The irony of all this is that Rebecca’s recently become not only the youngest ever recipient of the Bradley Prize, but also the first woman to win it. However, as the award ‘was meant to be the apotheosis of an artist’s lifetime work’, Rebecca thinks this means she’s done.
Once, Rebecca took a series of photographs which became a show titled ‘the Kitchen Counter series’. The photos were taken following an evening when her then husband, Peter, had arrived home with some colleagues and expected her to entertain them.
Still Life with Breadcrumbs [was] 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.
Winter became a female icon and the picture was reproduced on a variety of merchandise. (It’s the sort of thing Athena would have made in the late 1980s/early 1990s.)
However, sales of the picture have dried up and she’s struggling. This isn’t helped by the cottage, which is run down, and the reality of country life when you’ve been a city dweller all your life.
Things aren’t completely lost though; when Rebecca starts walking on the land that surrounds the cottage and begins to discover roughly made white crosses with trinkets underneath, she photographs them, creating a series over a period of several weeks.
Life also becomes more interesting with the arrival of Jim Bates who helps her with odd jobs around the cottage and also offers her some work photographing the birds that he monitors for the State Wildlife Service.
As she trained her camera on the bird it occurred to her that she had known much of her 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.
Still Life with Breadcrumbs is a wonderful novel about life not being over when you get to 60. It’s also about the stories behind the art and why sometimes they’re more important than the work. It looks at being a female artist, aging, love, family, money, fame and whether we can change our views and our life, regardless of our age. The two threads of Rebecca’s life – her photography and the life she’s beginning to create in her rural bolt hole – are skillfully brought together by Quindlen with a brilliant and shocking twist.
I loved this book so much, I devoured it in one sitting. Storytelling at its best.
Thanks to Hutchinson Books for the review copy.