Still Life with Bread Crumbs: Snapshots of Life in the Boonies

Anna Quindlen
Random House, 272 pp. ISBN: 978-1400065752

* * * ½

Anna Quindlen’s Still Life with Bread Crumbs has been called a “feminist post-feminist” novel, and that’s not a bad descriptor, though one should also add that her book is also a take-down of bourgeois life, hipster pretense, urban snobbery, and crass materialism.

Its befuddled heroine is Rebecca Winter, a photographer who made her mark in the 1960s with her “Kitchen Counter” series­–think a mash-up of Annie Liebowitz and Judy Chicago. The photographic centerpiece is the shot whose title this novel shares–a black-and-white composition consisting of a decimated loaf of artisan bread in a sea of dirty plates and wine glasses presented as if it were the aftermath of a Willem Claeszoom Heda banquet (see below). “Still Life” became an icon of Second Wave feminism–endlessly reproduced in textbooks, as a poster, and on mugs, tea towels, and other objects. Theorists, critics, and graduate students rushed to ‘interpret’ Winter’s work and she became the darling of feminists and hipsters everywhere. 

Little did any of them know that Winter’s photos were inspired by fatigue, not deeply held reflections upon the social expectations of women. She was simply too tired to clean up after one of her husband’s many parties–he an outwardly charming Englishman and professor, and inwardly a cad and sexist pig. So sexist, in fact, that he grew enormously jealous of Rebecca’s art world fame. In retrospect, Rebecca realized she was filming a very personal story: the disintegration of her marriage.

Flash from the late Sixties to the 21st century. Rebecca is 60 and has been divorced for more than a decade; her mother is in a nursing home, where she imagines herself a concert pianist; her father’s health is failing; she’s saddled with an abusive agent who belittles her work; and her son, Ben, is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker. Ben’s independence is a major problem–nursing home fees plus tepid sales minus support checks equal big-time financial woes. When Rebecca sees a rental advertisement for a rustic Maine cottage, she does some quick calculations and realizes she could improve her cash flow by renting her West Side Manhattan apartment and heading to the boonies. Maybe she’ll even have an Ansel Adams epiphany and rekindle the life of what she half-jokingly calls “the artist formerly known as Rebecca Winter.”

As Rebecca soon learns, those who live in rural places seldom use the word “rustic.” Living in the woods means raccoons in the attic, hunters in the backyard, gravel driveways that are hard to plow, and unreliable utilities. It also means exchanging urban problems for small-town woes that would make residents of Peyton Place blush. Rebecca encounters a new group of folks, some of whom are more impressed by who she used to be than she is, including Sarah, an overweight café-owner, and Tad, who dreams of being a singer. Most couldn’t care less, especially Tad’s mother; Kevin, Sarah’s shifty no-account husband; and Jim Bates, the roofer, handyman, and naturalist who Rebecca depends upon to repair her rural dreams-gone-wrong. And then there are mysterious crosses that she encounters throughout the woods-not graves, but shrines. To what?

Quindlen is a good stylist and is able to tell a story through spare, but evocative prose. She’s also superb at character development. The central hook of an urbanite seeking regeneration in small-town America won’t win any originality awards, though, and some may find that Rebecca’s May-September relationship (more like late June-September, actually) a bit far-fetched. I was more troubled by the too-easy problem resolutions of the last fifth of the book. That said, this is a breezy summer read that delivers many delights. I also give Quindlen kudos for daring to put a 60-year-old single woman at the center of her book, and I applaud her take on feminism as praxis. Rebecca Winter might have been hailed as a feminist poster child in her youth, but we come to learn that it’s only in her 7th decade that she chooses her associates and breaks all the expectation molds. To my mind, feminism-as-a-life journey is the best kind of all.

Rob Weir

Claeszoom was a 16th century Dutch painter who loved painting food the way today's foodies like photographing it.

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