Not so long ago I had a run of heart-wrenching reads so it’s a pleasure to report that Anna Quindlen’s Still Life with Breadcrumbs is in the opposite corner. Not that there were any guarantees that it would be – I remember two of her previous books, Black and Blue and One True Thing, being quite harrowing at times – but this particular novel reminded me of Anne Tyler: acutely observed, entertainingly written and a pleasure to read.
It opens with what might be a gunshot, although it turns out not to be. Rebecca Winter is lying in the bedroom of the rundown cottage she’s rented for a year. Divorced, almost sixty and with ailing parents, she’s sublet her New York apartment in an attempt to eke out her meagre income from her diminishing royalties. Rebecca’s a photographer, made famous by the eponymous photograph of her kitchen after yet another impromptu dinner sprung on her by her then husband who never felt it was part of the deal to help clear up. The gunshot, she realises, was the springing of a trap set by the local roofer, Jim Bates, to capture whatever was making the skittering noise on her roof the previous night. Urban to the bone, Rebecca find adjusting to small town New York State hard but money is tight and needs must. She gets to know Sarah, an anglophile tea shop owner; Tad, a professional clown with an operatic voice and of course, Jim, the taciturn roofer. She begins to find things to photograph, the most intriguing being a series of white crosses adorned with memorabilia. Then, one winter’s night when the snow is so deep she’s unable to open her door, Jim arrives to dig her out. There are no real surprises in the way things turn out but the way we get there is thoroughly enjoyable.
Quindlen has a nice line in wry observation and a smart turn of phrase: Rebecca’s dilapidated cottage is the ‘real estate version of online dating, built atop lies, leading downhill to disenchantment’. Dry, often very funny, asides and observations on characters and what happens to them are woven through her narrative together with lots of pleasing little trails leading off into side stories often finishing ‘but that was later’. Every character has a story and the loquacious Sarah makes sure that Rebecca knows them all. All of this lifts Quindlen’s novel well above the sentimental while remaining firmly in heart warming territory. It’s a treat, and it’s made me want to pick up her backlist and read the ones I’ve missed.