Still Life with Bread Crumbs (Quindlen)

Still Life with Bread Crumbs 
Anna Quindlen, 2014
Random House
272 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780812976892



Summary
Still Life with Bread Crumbs begins with an imagined gunshot and ends with a new tin roof.

Between the two is a wry and knowing portrait of Rebecca Winter, a photographer whose work made her an unlikely heroine for many women. Her career is now descendant, her bank balance shaky, and she has fled the city for the middle of nowhere. There she discovers, in a tree stand with a roofer named Jim Bates, that what she sees through a camera lens is not all there is to life.
 
Brilliantly written, powerfully observed, Still Life with Bread Crumbs is a deeply moving and often very funny story of unexpected love, and a stunningly crafted journey into the life of a woman, her heart, her mind, her days, as she discovers that life is a story with many levels, a story that is longer and more exciting than she ever imagined. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—July 8, 1952
Where—Philadelphia, PA, USA
Education—B.A., Barnard College
Awards—Pulitzer Prize for her New York Times column
Currently—New York, New York


Anna Quindlen could have settled onto a nice, lofty career plateau in the early 1990s, when she had won a Pulitzer Prize for her New York Times column; but she took an unconventional turn, and achieved a richer result.

Quindlen, the third woman to hold a place among the New York Times' Op-Ed columnists, had already published two successful collections of her work when she decided to leave the paper in 1995. But it was the two novels she had produced that led her to seek a future beyond her column.

Quindlen had a warm, if not entirely uncritical, reception as a novelist. Her first book, Object Lessons, focused on an Irish American family in suburban New York in the 1960s. It was a bestseller and a New York Times Notable Book of 1991, but was also criticized for not being as engaging as it could have been. One True Thing, Quindlen's exploration of an ambitious daughter's journey home to take care of her terminally ill mother, was stronger still—a heartbreaker that was made into a movie starring Meryl Streep. But Quindlen's fiction clearly benefited from her decision to leave the Times. Three years after that controversial departure, she earned her best reviews yet with Black and Blue, a chronicle of escape from domestic abuse.

Quindlen's novels are thoughtful explorations centering on women who may not start out strong, but who ultimately find some core within themselves as a result of what happens in the story. Her nonfiction meditations—particularly A Short Guide to a Happy Life and her collection of "Life in the 30s" columns, Living Out Loud—often encourage this same transition, urging others to look within themselves and not get caught up in what society would plan for them. It's an approach Quindlen herself has obviously had success with.

Extras
• To those who expressed surprise at Quindlen's apparent switch from columnist to novelist, the author points out that her first love was always fiction. She told fans in a Barnes & Noble.com chat, "I really only went into the newspaper business to support my fiction habit, but then discovered, first of all, that I loved reporting for its own sake and, second, that journalism would be invaluable experience for writing novels."

• Quindlen joined Newsweek as a columnist in 1999. She began her career at the New York Post in 1974, jumping to the New York Times in 1977.

• Quindlen's prowess as a columnist and prescriber of advice has made her a popular pick for commencement addresses, a sideline that ultimately inspired her 2000 title A Short Guide to a Happy Life Quindlen's message tends to be a combination of stopping to smell the flowers and being true to yourself. Quindlen told students at Mount Holyoke in 1999, "Begin to say no to the Greek chorus that thinks it knows the parameters of a happy life when all it knows is the homogenization of human experience. Listen to that small voice from inside you, that tells you to go another way. George Eliot wrote, 'It is never too late to be what you might have been.' It is never too early, either. And it will make all the difference in the world."

• Studying fiction at Barnard with the literary critic Elizabeth Hardwick, Quindlen's senior thesis was a collection of stories, one of which she sold to Seventeen magazine. (From Barnes & Noble.)



Book Reviews
Rebecca Winter is a 60-year-old photographer...[who] needs a fresh start after her marriage falls apart because her husband trades her in for a younger model.... Quindlen has always excelled at capturing telling details in a story, and she does so again in this quiet, powerful novel, showing the charged emotions that teem beneath the surface of daily life.
Publishers Weekly


Quindlen has made a home at the top of the bestsellers lists with novels that capture the grace and frailty of everyday life, and her latest work is sure to take her there again. With spare, elegant prose, she crafts a poignant glimpse into the inner life of an aging woman who discovers that reality contains much more color than her own celebrated black-and-white images.
Library Journal


A Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist and star in the pantheon of domestic fiction (Every Last One, 2010), Quindlen presents instantly recognizable characters who may be appealingly warm and nonthreatening, but that only serves to drive home her potent message that it’s never too late to embrace life’s second chances.
Booklist


A photographer retreats to a rustic cottage, where she confronts aging and flagging career prospects.... Occasionally profound, always engaging, but marred by a formulaic resolution in which rewards and punishments are meted out according to who ranks highest on the niceness scale.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. What part of Rebecca Winter’s life do you relate to the most? How did the way Rebecca handled her hardships compare to decisions you’ve made in your own life?

2. One of the themes of Still Life with Bread Crumbs is discovering how to age gracefully. What has been one of your biggest struggles when entering a different stage of life? What is something you’ve enjoyed?

3. Rebecca finds herself living far outside the comfort zone of her former New York City life. What do you think is the most difficult part of moving somewhere new? Have you ever been in a similar situation? How did you handle it?

4. At one point in the book, Jim says that he believes that people live in houses that look like them. How does your own house or apartment reflect your personality?

5. "Language had always failed her when it came to describing her photographs…There was nothing she could say about the cross photographs that could come close to actually seeing them." Rebecca realizes this after speaking at the Women’s Art League event. Do you ever find it difficult to describe the effect that art --- photographs, paintings, writing --- has had on you? What might that say about the power of artwork?

6. Throughout the book, Sarah is often the perfect antidote for Rebecca’s unhappiness. Do you have a person like this in your life? Think about one of the times that you were most grateful for him or her.

7. One of the turning points for Rebecca is when Ben tells her, "You will always be Rebecca Winter." How has Rebecca’s personal identity become entangled with her identity as an iconic artist? What helps her to ground herself?

8. The dog gradually becomes a bigger part of Rebecca’s life as she moves further away from her past self—the "not a dog person" city girl. The dog pictures are even the catalyst for Rebecca’s break with TG. What do you think the presence of the dog means in Rebecca’s life, especially after she discovers his name is Jack? How might the constant company of an animal have a different effect from that of the company of people?

9. When Rebecca finally learns the meaning of the crosses, she wonders if the great artists had ever considered "the terrible eternity of immortality" for their subjects. We live in a culture of camera phones and constant photography. Was there ever a moment when you were particularly grateful to have a certain photograph? Do you ever wish that our lives were less documented?

10. O. Henry’s short story and the story of Rebecca’s mother’s Mary Cassatt both have a bittersweet quality to them. Think about a moment in your life that might have been upsetting or sad. Was there someone who helped you see beauty or happiness in that moment instead?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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