Summer Book Club Week 6: Still Life With Bread Crumbs

Guidelines for the Summer Book Club: if you’ve read this book, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week? Please comment, or post on your own blog and link in the comments below.

Cover Image - Bread CrumbsDon’t get me wrong: Anna Quindlen’s Still Life With Bread Crumbs is a good book.  The prose is beautifully invisible, just as I like it.  The characters are, with one exception, convincing, and the structure is odd enough to keep things interesting.

In terms of plot, though, my alarms started going off early.  Still Life With Bread Crumbs is a middle-aged-lady romantic fantasy, and my antipathy to such fantasies may be a symptom of my own self-loathing.  I am, after all, a middle-aged lady.  I am in good health and of relatively sound mind, and some people find me pleasant and/or interesting company.  However, I feel quite certain that, if my husband runs off with … whoever, men twenty years my junior will not be mooning around about my extraordinary mouth, or whatever my equivalent is to Rebecca Winter’s odd sixty-year-old embouchre.

Maybe I’m wrong about this – what do I know about men and what they moon about? – and, if so, I apologize to Anna Quindlen, and men, and middle-aged ladies everywhere, for my incredulity.  However, the character of Jim Bates is a classic romance novel hero, and I’m not a fan of the genre.  Of course we middle-aged ladies would like to believe that men like he exist, men who can fix the roof AND survey local wildlife in their spare time AND  bring us packets of their fresh-killed venison because they sense we might need it AND still find time to be a bit distracted because there is something about us that they just can’t shake free of.  I have less life experience than Anna Quindlen or her heroine; also, if Quindlen’s bio photo is any indication, I am considerably less attractive at forty-four than she is in her sixties.  So maybe she knows things I don’t.

Nonetheless, the passages from Jim Bates’ point of view prompted me to say, “Oh, come on,” more than once.  Out loud.  Lines like “every time Jim Bates looked at her lower lip he had an impulse to take it gingerly between his front teeth” would be interesting if they were complicated by some sort of ambivalence or even menace, but instead, they seem to be expressions of a tender manly (read: Harlequinesque) desire for a woman old enough to be his mother that I just can’t swallow.  Do I think men in their forties can be sexually attracted to women in their sixties?  Of course they can.  Do I think that attraction manifests itself the way Quindlen portrays it?  I don’t, and she didn’t convince me.

That said, I held my nose and kept reading, because there’s so much else going on here.  Rebecca isn’t a straightforward Mary Sue; she’s difficult, bruised, and mostly realistic in her assessments of herself, particularly her fall from art stardom to poverty and mediocrity, and the demise of her pretty nasty marriage.  Her portrait of her relationship with her ex-husband is delicious, full of observations like

Rebecca forgave him nothing.  She told herself that this was not because he had betrayed her but because he had betrayed his son.  This was one of those statements that sounded sensible until you compared it against actual human psychology.

or – and this one just kills me:

Peter would do something…and she would gather up her shreds of dignity and respond with the silent treatment.  Except that Peter liked the silent treatment – he found it restful.

I mean, that is one beautiful line.  There are more.  I kept considering tossing this book aside, and then something like that would come up, and I’d think, Wow, and I’d keep reading.  I’m not sorry.  I’m not able to suspend my disbelief enough to truly enjoy  traditional romances, but Quindlen’s exemplar is an impressive one.

*

Also read this week: Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep, while I wait for The Fever to be available at my library.  I took a stab at Abbott’s Dare Me a few years ago, and felt like if I could get past the demanding prose at the beginning, I would probably find it riveting.  (I’ve said it before: i like my prose invisible.  Anything showy puts me off.)  Being short on time, I didn’t push on. Bury Me Deep gave me the same trouble, but it’s summer now, and I made the effort, and was rewarded.  It’s a wonderfully rich little pot-boiler, and I can’t wait to get Abbott’s other novels.

Abandoned this week:

  • The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion.  I wanted to be charmed by this book.  It’s clear that Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, one of my favourite books, is an important influence.  However, about 1/4 of the way in, I began to suspect that The Rosie Project is about how someone with Asperger’s syndrome can learn to be a delightful romantic hero by just trying harder, and my gut reaction was “No thanks.”
  • Delicious! by Ruth Reichl.  I probably didn’t give Delicious! a fair shot.  I love Reichl’s memoir Tender at the Bone; I teach it in my memoir class, and a lot of my students like it too.  It became apparent after a few pages that Delicious! is nothing like Tender at the Bone, and the exposition contains a lot of clunky dialogue, so I moved on.
  • The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton. See above re: showy prose.  Don’t like it.  This is my third stab at The Rehearsal; I keep being seduced by the cover and the promise of a story about high school sex scandals and precocious artistic teenagers.  People keep telling me I should read The Luminaries instead, but seriously, look at the size of it.

*

Have you read Still Life With Bread Crumbs, or any of the other books I read/attempted this week? If so, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading?

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12 responses

  1. I’ve heard good things about Still Life and it was actually on my TBR list, but now that I have read your review it will probably stay there. I still love those quotes from the book you highlighted.

    Is the romance a major thing in the book, or is it like a side-plot?

    • Nish: the romance is not the only thing, but it’s pretty central. Despite all the other interesting stuff that’s going on, the novel seems to be structured mostly around the love story. I think the book is worth it (I finished it, and if I don’t think a book is worth it, I don’t), but, given my time back, I might choose to read something else.

  2. I have not read this book. Don’t think it appeals to me but as always your sharing of snippets does have me thinking. Thank you for that. I can hate a bloom but admire the writing washing the experience out of my mind…

    I read Dare Me last summer. I had the same sentiments about it with the prose being so in your face at first that I wondered if there was an actual story underneath it all. There was in a way. I liked it but couldn’t point out directly why when anyone asked. It takes a certain reader I think. Abbott is wonderful though. I like her. Maybe I’ll add Bury Me Deep in there.

    I’m still plugging along Life After Life and wanting my life back. I’ve got 100 pages I go? Maybe I can get through it at nap time. Just the overwhelming morbidness of death in this war has me bored and sickened at once. I’ll finish it. I have to. Then I need a real quick winner!

    http://butlerbin2013.wordpress.com/2014/06/30/reading-life-interrupted/

    • BB: in your place I would totally abandon LAL! I felt the need to finish it too, out of loyalty to Atkinson more than anything else, but this summer I’ve made myself a rule: if I’m 50 pages in and feel no strong need to keep going, I chuck it. So many books! Life is so short! (except in the world of LAL, of course…!)

  3. Ha! I totally get what you mean about the believability of some of these romantic novels. I teeter back and forth between loving getting lost in the love of the story and hating them entirely because they are so far off base from reality. But isn’t that why we read in the first place? To be transported away from reality?

    • Sometimes! My difficulty is when the book no longer transports me because it’s jarred me out of the story with something ludicrous/awkward/irritating – I’m totally willing to invest myself in something unrealistic, but it needs to FEEL realistic to me or I just can’t be swept away.

  4. I read Still Life two months ago and I’m in complete agreement about the romance. I found it odd and unconvincing. I liked so many other quirky characters and I enjoyed the prose. I thought that the setting was done very well and I did like Rebecca. But the Jim Bates/relationship was off for me. Interestingly, I attempted the Luminaries recently, I made it 50 pages and gave up. Very similar to your reaction re showy prose. But at the end of 50 pages I really had no clue as to why I should keep reading so I didn’t. Sigh. I’m reading The Last Runaway this week.

    • Tara: I’m glad it’s not just me! I felt self-conscious about my internalized misogyny/ageism revealing itself. Yes, I keep trying to talk myself into the Luminaries, but I pick it up every time I go to the library and browse the first few pages and then think, “No.” Maybe the time will come…

  5. I haven’t read any of these books so far! But knowing what an astute reader (and writer) you are, SC, I’d say trust your judgement. I managed to horrify a few friends by admitting I put aside The Goldfinch after the first 50 pages. (That’s my cut-off, too – 50 pages). Being a small-press author and reader, I’ve learned there are jewels out there that never get any press, reviews, hype, or big-5 booster shots. That’s made me approach the hyped books with a bit more scepticism, and reduce my guilt considerably. We all know mass-market doesn’t account for all our personal preferences (and quirks) anyway.

    • WW: I also abandoned The Goldfinch! Granted, I was listening to it instead of reading, but it was just too meandering Victorian novel-y for me. (Please note: I have nothing against actual Victorian novels, at least not in principle, but my reading time is so short and precious that I am sometimes unable to do long and dense.)

  6. Last night I finished Every Last One by the same author – it’s the first of her books I have read. I loved it. Her use of words is beautiful. I found Every Last One compelling, the first half falling in love with the whole cast and INSTANTLY identifying with the matriarch – seriously, page two, I was hooked. I won’t give any more away but it is well worth a read. I’m not a fan of romance novels and this didn’t fall into that category. Perhaps Still Life needs to come off my (never ending) list of books to read. Thanks for the timely review!

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