Anna Quindlen is a name new to me, but I seem to have come a little late to the party. Still Life with Breadcrumbs is Quindlen’s seventh novel; she’s been number one on the New York Times bestseller list with her memoir Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, and she’s won the Pulitzer Prize (for Commentary, in 1992). This is no debut; it’s an assured, confident read that embraces the reader from the very first chapter.
Rebecca Winter is a celebrated photographer who has fallen on (relatively) hard times. The royalties from her famous photo series are drying up, and as well as the regular costs of health insurance and running a home and car, she has her mother’s nursing home bills to pay and a son she likes to help out. She rents out her glorious Manhattan apartment and moves into a cheap property in the rural outskirts of New York, where she hopes to save money and produce some new work, with the ultimate aim of moving back into her beloved home.
The community she finds is small, close and accepting. She breakfasts in the local café, where the owner, Sarah, juggles baking, gossiping and a difficult marriage. Rebecca roams the countryside, taking pictures here and there. The very un-Manhattanite problem of a raccoon in the roofspace is dealt with by one Jim Bates, who becomes the friend who eventually lights the way to a happier, more truthful future. The story is related in prose that appears to splash joyously onto minor characters as well as principal ones but which is in fact deceptively precise, and creates a rich, broad picture of Rebecca’s emotional journey.
Still Life with Breadcrumbs (the title of Rebecca’s most successful photograph) is a hard novel to review without spoiling the plot. If the interest of The Bear lay largely in Claire Cameron’s use of language, and of The Undertaking in the tension between character and historical fact, then Still Life with Breadcrumbs pulls the reader through with a good, old-fashioned concern about what happens next, and what will happen in the end. Whilst embracing issues such as mental health, isolation and professional failure, Quindlen maintains a genuine faith in humanity that pulses through the plot, resulting in a gloriously affirming read, all the more interesting for having a main character who’s female and sixty, and defined by neither.