Book Review: Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen

Anna Quindlen

Anna Quindlen

Two books have changed the trajectory of my life. Ironically, both were written by Anna Quindlen:  Black & Blue and Still Life with Bread Crumbs.

Actually, Black & Blue changed the trajectory of Oprah and Iyanla Vanzant’s lives too.  Oprah introduced the book to her viewers after Ms. Vanzant’s first appearance on her show.  After the show, I broke down the walls of silence on my own abuse to Oprah.  Shocked the hell out of her.  She begged me to write a review, and it became the format for Change Your Life TV which has morphed into the OWN Network’s Super Soul Sunday.  Sometimes this makes me proud, and sometimes this makes me think I owe the world a huge apology.

Credit:  Anna Quindlen's FB page

Credit: Anna Quindlen’s FB page

It wasn’t the right house for Rebecca Winter.
It was too insubstantial, too unmarked.
– Anna Quindlen, Still Life with Bread Crumbs

Still Life with Bread Crumbs is about a NYC photographer who was emotionally abused by her British college professor ex-husband.  Rebecca Grace Winter acquired celebrity for her Still Life with Bread Crumbs series of photos which became feminist icons.  In a lot of respects, her success eclipsed her husband Peter Soames Symington’s, but he treated her horridly.  These lines resonated powerfully for me:

. . .marriages in the circles in New York in which they traveled consisted of men who pontificated publicly, and the women who let their faces go still while they did so. . .in their own living rooms, the men seemed to be resting for the next round of pontificating and so saved their strength by staying silent. . .

Their relationship was like playing chess except that one person had all the larger pieces and the other ~ her ~ a line of sad little pawns.  Check check check.  Checkmate. . .


It’s a funny thing, hope.
It’s not like love, or fear, or hate.
It’s a feeling you don’t really know you had until it’s gone.
– Anna Quindlen, Still Life with Bread Crumbs

Most survivors have felt the sting of betrayal from Bluebeard-type perpetrators like Prof. Symington.  OMG.  Sounds like the judge and me:

Deft seduction was his most conspicuous character trait. . .Rebecca had met him at a dinner party. . .He was. . .still married. . .Rebecca had little experience with men. . .Her biography had all the trappings of sophistication but no actual sophistication at all. . .

Peter was a thrilling and imaginative lover before the clinking of champagne glasses at the wedding lunch; after, he was burning calories and fantasizing about the girl in the short skirt in the front row of his survey course.

Anna Quindlen

Anna Quindlen

So much smiling in the service of pretense.
Alone in the cottage she needn’t smile, and didn’t.
– Anna Quindlen, Still Life with Bread Crumbs

Rebecca’s photos funded a lavish lifestyle in New York City.  But, the popularity of her photos and the income they generated gradually dwindled.  In dire financial straits, Rebecca rented her posh apartment and relocated to a small, primitive cabin in upstate New York.  No cell phone service or Internet connection or even electricity in her bedroom.  Rebecca found a cafe with wi-fi and a friendly owner, and she started to meet the locals including a much younger roofer, Jim Bates, who was a champion for abused women.

Rebecca explored the woods, watched her bank balance like the hawks which soared overhead, and found her mo-jo again.  Since I’ve badly lost my own mo-jo, these passage chilled me:

. . .she was like a wine bottle with nothing inside but a few grainy dregs, a woman who rarely wept although she knew she would have been better for it.

People froze you in place, Rebecca sometimes thought, trudging through the woods.  More important, you froze yourself, often into a person in whom you truly had no interest. . .

“I look like one of those women,” she said to the dog. . .One of those women who let themselves go, who paid no attention to how they looked?  One of those women who had given up. . .

Gus.  Photo credit:  Anna Quindlen's FB page

Gus. Photo credit: Anna Quindlen’s FB page

No money, no work, no agent. . .
Her standards had shifted. . .
“Dog pictures. . .”
– Anna Quindlen, Still Life with Bread Crumbs

Ouch.  Too true.  There are other passages that cut too close to the bone to share.  Let’s just say I shed those tears that have been bottled up for way too long and made an important decision about the trajectory of the rest of my life.  I need to keep my promise to myself to see Ms. Quindlen when she’s in town tomorrow night and thank her.  Again.

One of my favorite characters was an abused, stray dog named Jack who attached himself to Rebecca and helped her heal. . .like Bitzie.

Now, it is time to finally grieve my mother.  Rebecca’s mother, Beatrice [Bebe] Sophia Freeman Winter, reminds me of my own narcissistic mother.  After Rebecca’s divorce, she opined:

“I always liked Peter,” her mother said.

Thank God for Rebecca’s grandmother who grumbled:

Some women, they shouldn’t have children.


See also:

Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen [book review], 2/26/09

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