Still Life With Bread Crumbs, by Anna Quindlen

Review published on February 24, 2014. Reviewed by Marleen Kennedy

Rebecca Winter used to be famous for her photographs. A picture called ‘Still Life with Breadcrumbs’, showing the leftovers of a dinner party the morning after, made her name both in artistic circles and it the woman’s movement. But that was ages ago, when she was still married to a man who turned out to change wives every ten years.

Now aged 60 Rebecca is worrying about money, something she can’t really remember doing before. With her fame in decline and her work no longer selling it is getting ever harder to find the money to pay for her apartment in New York City, contribute to her mother’s nursing home costs, her father’s accommodation and all the other drains on her ever dwindling resources. Letting her apartment for a year while renting a small cottage in rural New York State seems the perfect solution. Except that she hadn’t expected the cottage to be quite as primitive as it turns out to be, nor the countryside as lonely as it is.

A racoon taking refuge in her attic brings Rebecca in contact with Jim Bates, a roofer who takes care of the roon problem and slowly coaxes the photographer out of her self-imposed solitude. It is through Jim and other locals that Rebecca comes to recognise that life at 60 is far from over, that new opportunities lie just around the corner if you’re willing to open your eyes and mind to them and that happiness is anything but the exclusive right of the young.

It took me a little while to get into this story and, more specifically, Rebecca. For a while I just wanted to take this woman by the shoulders and shout at her; remind her that she was 60 years old and should have gotten a hold of herself and her life years ago. This feeling dwindled as the story continued because Rebecca’s journey is both fascinating and thought-provoking. It was a delight to watch as she slowly opens herself up to the possibilities represented by a new environment, new people in her life and a new perspective on the world around her.

At first glance the writing in this book seems distant, unemotional, because the story – like Rebecca’s pictures – seems to concentrate on the minor details, without putting them in their larger context. It is only as the story progresses that it becomes clear that the reader and Rebecca are on a similar journey. In her photographs and in life Rebecca has always concentrated on details so small that it became impossible to see the bigger picture. Her year in the middle of nowhere and her contact with Jim, Sally, the owner of an English teashop and Tad, a professional clown, force her to look at the bigger picture and the beauty that can be found when you take in the whole. The reader’s journey is the same. As all the small details of Rebecca’s life slowly come together it becomes possible to appreciate the woman for all that she is rather than despair about her for one or two minor idiosyncrasies.

This is a book about encountering new opportunities and having the courage to embrace them, regardless of what stage of your life you happen to be facing. This is true for Rebecca, who has to reinvent her life, the way in which she has approached photography and rethink her ideas about age and love. It is also true for Tad, who uses Rebecca’s example to pursue his own dream and it is true for the dog Rebecca adopts even though she is not a dog person.

On a side note I should probably add that the few chapters written from the dog’s perspective are probably among my favourites in this book, a close second to the following passage, which ties in nicely with my early reservations about Rebecca and her story.

“(…) 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 (…)”

It is very appropriate that Rebecca is a photographer since this is a story about perspective. Just as it is possible to change the picture you capture with your camera it is possible to alter the way you approach life, provided you’re prepared to adjust your default settings and take a risk.

This a sparsely written story with a powerful message; life is what we make of it, regardless of age or circumstance. If we are willing to look at the world from a different perspective we might just find that opportunities are available to us where we least expect them.

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Pomfret Towers, by Angela Thirkell

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The One Plus One, by Jojo Moyes

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