Book Review Thirty-Five
April 7, 2014
The best way to read Anna Quindlen’s latest book might be with some of your favorite photographs close at hand. They will provide a personal link to this delightful story.
Rebecca Winter had received critical acclaim and financial success in her forties with her Kitchen Counter and Baby Boy series of photographs that captured scenes within a home in a unique way. She didn’t realize how much money she was making until it was reduced to almost nothing. Now 60 and recently divorced, she mentally checked her bank balance daily after being forced to lease her Manhattan apartment and rent a cottage in a small town in upstate New York. Even artists have bills to pay. When she hears a strange sound in her attic, the town locals recommend she contact a roofer named Jim Bates since whatever it is probably gained access through her roof. Jim is in his thirties. A former Marine, Jim is the third generation of his family to practice the roofing craft. He solves the problem in her attic by capturing and then killing the guilty raccoon. During a walk in the nearby woods, Rebecca sees Jim in a tree stand holding a gun aimed at a bald eagle. After she accuses him of trying to illegally kill the eagle, Jim climbs down and firmly explains that he is using a tracking device to monitor various birds for the State Wildlife Service. This experience and the ones that follow between them form the unexpected framework of a relationship combining Rebecca’s artistic, urban perspective with the realistic, common sense, compassionate character of Jim.
Quindlen uses other characters in Still Life to keep her story from being just a simple romance. Sarah Ashby owns Tea For Two, a small pastry and sandwich shop. Jim Bates quietly helps her modify the menu to provide acceptable fare to the locals while still keeping some of the English specialties that Sarah treasures. Sarah’s husband Kevin is an obnoxious loud mouth deadbeat. Polly Bates is Jim’s mentally ill younger sister whom he loves deeply and yet Rebecca never meets her. Without any knowledge of their ownership or understanding of their meaning, Rebecca photographs a number of white crosses made by Polly. Polly’s sudden death comes right before Rebecca holds a grand showing of her “White Cross Series” at a gallery in Brooklyn which Jim attends. When Jim confronts Rebecca at her cottage after the showing, it forces the creativity of the artist to acknowledge the history of the personal lives in her photographs that Rebecca has not previously considered.
Still Life is a departure in its theme from Quindlen’s previous novels. As enjoyable as it was to read, I hope she writes similar ones in the future.