Friday, June 13, 2014

Still Life With Bread Crumbs

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Still Life With Bread Crumbs (Random House, 2014).

Last year I made one of the best reading decisions that I've ever made: to just pay attention to contemporary fiction via the Books section of Entertainment Weekly. It's far from a perfect system and it reflects that magazine's editors' biases, but instead of waiting around for new fiction that fits my own biases and preconceived notions, I'm simply reading far more than I have in years. I've read authors I've found to be wearying and overrated (Donna Tartt), frustrating but promising (Marisha Pessl), and "where have they been my whole life" amazing (Meg Wollitzer) that I never would have experienced had I just confined myself to waiting for something new by Walter Mosley or some Ross MacDonald book I hadn't read before. (Or some Walter Mosley that I hadn't read before, about which, more in seven days.)

Anna Quindlen isn't quite in the top Wollitzer bracket, but Still Life With Bread Crumbs, her seventh novel, released earlier this year by Random House, was still an incredibly entertaining book and I'm so glad that I tried it. Actually, my skim reading of the review or "hot list" note just sang out "Your wife might like this one" and I insisted that she give it a try first. (She owed me that for giving up on Gone Girl, the introductory book in my experiment, before the first of the twists, just because she didn't like the husband. "You're not meant to" didn't sink in.) Happily, my wife loved it and wants to read more Quindlen. So do I.

This book is centered around a 60 year-old photographer named Rebecca Winter, who lived happily for years off the royalties from some of her work, but the money has dried up when she needs it most. To save some cash, she leases out her pony Manhattan apartment and takes a very cheap fixer-upper far in the countryside. She makes friends of some of the residents, and confides in a tea shop owner who seems just a little familiar. If this book had been written ten years ago, then a film adaptation would have cast Melissa McCarthy in the role, because she is totally Sookie from Gilmore Girls.

Rebecca is a beautifully young sixty. She still has all the energy and enthusiasm that I hope to have at her age, and she's still making artistic discoveries. She finds some strange little memorials in the huge forest around her house and begins photographing them. Then she realizes that the memorials never last very long; not only can she not discern who is leaving them and what they commemorate, she can't determine who is removing them. After she fires her grouchy agent over an argument about a photo of a dog that she sold in the tea shop, her new agent sees a tremendous opportunity for a new series and arranges a major gallery launch. Rebecca is reinventing herself after her ex-husband's betrayal, her son's bizarre romantic attachments, and the aging of her parents. Maybe a gallery show is exactly what she needs to kickstart her next act...

I enjoyed this tremendously. I loved the story and the characters, and I love Quindlen's breezy style. She has a fantastic, fun narrative voice, happily interjecting that details will come later, and using as-long-as-they-need-to-be parenthetical diversions to clarify minutiae on the story's sidelines. The result is a narration that feels like a comfortable storyteller settling in for a detailed and sometimes unstructured account of our heroine. She even tosses in some transcriptions of magazine articles and critical reviews for additional "understanding," in a knowing, cheeky way. It's a simple, upbeat, curious and gently mysterious story about growing up when you're old enough to count as a grown-up already. Tremendous fun, and happily recommended.

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