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Still Life with Breadcrumbs, by Anna Quindlen, Hutchinson, RRP£16.99/Random House, RRP$26, 272 pages
Is good fortune deserved or just a matter of luck? Rebecca Winter, a no-longer famous New York photographer, and the heroine of Anna Quindlen’s new novel Still Life With Breadcrumbs, inclines towards the latter view. She is still somewhat mystified by the commercial and critical success she once enjoyed, which she chiefly ascribes to an ability to “know it when she sees it” and to be in the right place at the right time. Which she currently is not.
Sixty and divorced, the aptly named Winter is hibernating from life in an uncongenial cottage in the country. She makes anxious daily tallies of her dwindling finances, and wonders how long she’ll be able to pay for her mother’s care home, support her son, cover the life insurance, the car insurance, the cost of food and fuel. The cottage is dark and draughty, but it is all Winter can afford now that her photographs have stopped selling. Her glamorous social life in Manhattan has been replaced by a local roofer, a teashop owner and a children’s clown. “Hope,” she reflects, is “a feeling you don’t really know you had until it’s gone.”
Winter is a modest, unassuming character, as patient in the face of adversity as she was humble in the face of success. An exemplar of the aphorism that bad things happen to good people, her most annoying quality is her uncomplaining stoicism. Just as she used to put up with her ex-husband exhorting their dinner guests, “Please, leave the dishes. My wife will be immortalizing them once you’ve left”, so she now tolerates hours of solitude and the fear of bankruptcy.
Enter Jim Bates: tall, taciturn, practical, stalwart. But then the discovery of strange wooden crosses in the nearby woods makes Winter reach for her camera with a racing heart. Who put the crosses there, and why, are questions that only briefly concern her – a lapse in artistic and personal integrity, for which she will later pay a price.
But not too high a price, because Still Life with Breadcrumbs is essentially a romantic comedy and Quindlen is entirely mistress of her art. The reader is never too worried that Winter’s future will remain as cold and comfortless as her present. It is more a question of how things will all come right, what else will go deliciously wrong in the meantime, and when and in what form Rebecca Winter’s star will, as it surely must, shine again.
Quindlen’s own star has been steadily on the ascendant for more than two decades, since she won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for a collection of her journalism. The author of seven novels and eight works of non-fiction, she was the first writer to have New York Times bestsellers in both genres. Her 2012 memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, made it to number one, and A Short Guide to a Happy Life (2000) has sold more than a million copies.
Quindlen fans return to her fiction and non-fiction for a vision of life that is resolutely hopeful. In Still Life with Breadcrumbs, issues of artistic responsibility and the ethics of photographic appropriation are raised, but not seriously enough to disrupt the novel’s solid core of optimism. Never lose heart is the moral of the tale, even if you’re 60, divorced and on your financial uppers. Stick with the breadcrumbs long enough and the feast will be yours in the end.
Rebecca Abrams is author of ‘Touching Distance’ (Picador)
This article has been amended since original publication to correct the spelling of the novelist’s name in the opening paragraph