Still Life With Bread Crumbs - Anna Quindlen


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I read the eBook and listened to the audio so all page references are to the e-version.

This story is about re-creating one's life.  Rebecca Winter is a 60-ish photo artist, divorced with one grown son.  Her aging parents and dwindling sales cause her to rent out her New York City apartment and become a tenant at a less expensive location.  In so doing she learns a lot about herself. 



On a scale of 1 - 5:

Sex: 3 - just enough to be realistic but nothing embarrassing

Religion: 2

Gruesome:  0

Suspense:  0

Morality:  2

Sex - vague memory with specific visualization of husband-wife (Loc. 1314).  From the viewpoint of the dog in the hallway. (Loc. 2005)  Later Rebecca thinks about the encounter but does not provide details.  Talk about a character who has a reputation for being loose. (Loc. 2070)  A reference to a female volleyball player being called a "dyke".  (Loc. 2844)  Rebecca tells Dorothea the reason she looks so good is because of the sex.  (Loc. 3050)  Rebecca found gay pornography in the cottage. (Loc. 3093)

Religion - a dig at Catholicism in reference to a mother's comment regarding Italian men, "So much for Catholic morality!" (Loc. 1326)  Jim "raised his eyes to the ceiling, to the crawl space, to the roof, and said it again, 'Thank you'." (Loc. 2999)

Gruesome - nothing at all

Suspense - nothing remarkable

Morality - a mom got upset at her child who was afraid of a clown (Loc. 991)  When we get the backstory on the cottage Rebecca rents we find out it was owned by a gay man who left it to his lover when he died.  (Loc. 1787)  Jim "thanked God for the invention of the birth control pill" (Loc. 1819) so that his kids didn't wind up in the middle of divorce.  A statement that is in direct conflict with the next paragraph, "[Jim] was sorry he'd never had kids." (Loc. 1820)  Why he was sorry if he knew they would have ended up children of divorce I don't understand.  (Loc. 1825)  Some allusion to a Jewish family not always being proud of their heritage. (Loc. 2507)

Jim starts a series of comments (Loc. 1683, 1747, 1777 & 1794) about people like Rebecca which overlays his growing admiration for her.  Having read a suspenseful Anna Quindlen (Every Last One) made me think this was setting us up for drama.

I think Anna Quindlen is one of those authors who is known for her surprises.  The kind of surprises that, once you read them, you wonder why you didn't see it coming.  Maybe it even causes you to review certain parts again to see how you managed to miss the clues.  Harlan Coben is a master of this.  When Jim talks about his sister having lived with him when he was newly married - pay attention.  (Loc. 1818)  Also pay attention to the dog and how he reacts to others.

Anna Quindlen is also one of those authors that makes her characters so relatable.  Her characters are real - they eat and drink and listen to music.  Perhaps this is why there are almost endless ideas listed below for things to serve.  That and maybe because with an eBook I am less lazy about writing things down - it is a lot easier to electronically mark them.  I totally saw myself when Rebecca was thinking about going back to work in a structured environment and realized it would be "the clothes in the closet rotation again". (Loc. 2159)  Mostly relatable - but there are moments.  Like when Rebecca, who has taken up hiking, sees the muscles in her legs.  Her description surpasses even the muscles I had when I played soccer in high school. (Loc. 2174)

When the key couple first got together it seemed to happen must faster than I am accustomed to.  I felt like there wasn't enough of a tease.  But then there was a split.  When they were getting togther for the second time the lady fell and I expected that she would be injured and the guy would hop down and help her up.  The second time there was sufficient teasing in their reunion.

At the end of the book there are discussion questions.  I liked all of them except number five.  (Just a note - I always write my questions as I'm reading, before I ever look at the questions at the back.  Any overlap is purely coincidental.)

Discussion Questions
In the chapter titled "No Outlets" Rebecca reflects on the lack of outlets in the bedroom.  Share the worst design flaws you've lived with.  In the same chapter Rebecca also recognizes that her "clock had been with her far past the time when it was current or useful".  What item have you held on to way too long?

"At the doctor's [Rebecca] had read an article about the fact that women over fifty began to obsess about mortality". (Loc. 433)  Do they?

When you first saw Jim's response to the crosses in the ground (Loc. 542) what did you think he was upset about?  What did you think was the purpose of the white flag he insisted be on the cottage? (Loc. 636 & 2934)

Rebecca heard her mother's voice in her head regarding her choice of wrist watch. (Loc. 725)  
When do you hear your mother's voice in your head?

Have you ever discovered a different person between a parent at home and at work?  Or are you different?  (Loc. 738)  Likewise Jim Bates "was famous for having a clean mouth in a dirty-mouth business." (Loc. 1774)

At the end of "The Dog Arives, and Leaves Again" (Loc. 896) Rebecca knew that "sometimes things have to come when you're ready for them" and "was about to learn it even better".  What did you suspect was being foreshadowed?

Jim thought Rebecca was lucky to still have her mother alive. (Loc. 1164)  Rebecca noted that "Jim bates had lost his  mother when she still walked upright, when she still took word retrieval and continence for granted, when she cared for him and not the other way around." (Loc. 1164)  Who was more lucky?

Share favorite phrases of your father. (ref. Loc. 1164)

Rebecca's wedding announcement (Loc. 1293) said that "His previous marriage ended in divorce."  
How do you feel about this type of information in a wedding announcement?

Rebecca did not forgive her ex-husband, she claimed, "not because he had betrayed her but because he had betrayed his son." (Loc. 1303)  Compare the sentiment "against actual human psychology".

Read the passage in the "Fish, Bicycle" chapter that starts with, "The minuet of her marriage..." through "Checkmate." (Loc. 1303) How relatable is this passage? 

When Rebecca was dating her husband she was nearly thirty and "had little experience with men". (Loc. 1326)  How does this shape their relationship and any future relationship?

Discuss the cycle (ref. Loc. 1352) the inherent problem being, "once she becomes a wife, the exotic becomes familiar, and thus predictable, and thus not what was wanted at all.  Those few women who stayed exotic usually were considered, after a few years, to be crazy. "

Do you note your cookbooks?  (Loc. 1418)

Rebecca says she is "not sure anyone is born to be anything."  (Loc. 1460)  Are they?

What did you think was in the little graves?  (ref. Loc. 1475)

Bebe plays a table like it's a piano and doesn't even know when her family is there to visit or thinks her grandson is "the guy who's there to mop the floor".  (Loc. 1504)  How do you deal with a relative like this?

Do you have a money giving relative like Pop Pop? (Loc. 1570)  Or like Rebecca (writing a check to Ben) once she sold a photograph? (Loc. 1661)

When we hear the backstory of the cottage (Loc. 1787) we learn that it was owned by a gay man who left it to his lover when he died.  Is this gay reference necessary?  Does it make the story more realistic because this is the world today or is it taking a stand or waving a flag for a personal agenda or trying to get a wider audience approval?

Is the backstory of the cottage where Rebecca lives a metaphor for a Jim / Rebecca relationship?  (Loc. 1793)  How does it parallel the dog saga?

Jim received a Christmas card each year from his ex-wife and her new family.  (Loc. 1828)  
Is this unusual or normal?

When Rebecca was snowed in (Loc. 1911) "she realized that she was completely alone, cut off from everything around her, and that that was a feeling she had had living within her for a long long time...".  Have you ever felt this way?  Actually been this way?

Why did Polly write "pages and pages of stuff that made no sense at all, about murders and rapes and the existence of God and the end of the world."? (Loc. 2081)

Rebecca felt, "she should have made more friends in school; they seemed to be the only ones women really talked to honestly because the shared history meant fewer lies were available to them."  (Loc. 2165)  Do you agree?

What did Rebecca crossing the trestle symbolize?  (Loc. 2192)  Additionally, she slept deeply that night, woke to a train whistle then fell asleep again.  (Loc. 2239)

Dorothea was stuck collecting snow globes.  (Loc. 2226)  Do you have any snowglobes or equivalent items in your life?

Rebecca felt that sometimes people get frozen in place and turn into someone uninteresting even to themself.  In this case do you "continue a masquerade or ...give up on it." (Loc. 2230)

Which title do you prefer:  "Still Life with Bread Crumbs" or "Still Life with Dish Towel"? (Loc. 2283)  
Why do we not see the photo on the cover?

What does the destruction of the parka and Rebecca's attitude toward it symbolize?  (Loc. 2384)

After the funeral, when Sarah was talking to Rebecca, Rebecca admitted to Sarah that she didn't know what Sarah was talking about even though Rebecca felt the social convention would have been to just nod in agreement.  (Loc. 2517)  How often do you just nod vs. ask for clarification?

Rebecca's expression of sympathy to Jim was delayed - first because she didn't know, then because she didn't have Jim's address.  How would you have handled it?

Has the word "artist" been devalued?  (Loc. 2601)

Rebecca felt like she had been several different people in her life and had thought that eventually she would settle into one. (Loc. 2781)  Reflect on the different people you have been?  Will you ever stop evolving?

When Rebecca finally saw Jim again "both of the realized, one unexpectedly, one not, that they were furious".  Who was the unexpected one?  Was Rebecca furious because of the ladder?  With everything that happened regarding Polly, shouldn't she have been softer?

When Jim said, "Friends?  You thought we were friends?" (Loc. 2815) was he trying to imply that they had been more, or less?

"Other people used photographs as a way to keep close to the events of their lives, she had used them as a way to stand apart." (Loc. 2892)  How do you use your photos?  How do you freeze parts of your life?  Is it ever okay to freeze?

Were you surprised at the real outcome of the Mary Cassatt?  (Loc. 2959)  Was this Oscar and BiBi's version of "The Gift of the Magi"?  (Loc. 2975)

Why do you suppose Anna Quindlen chose to thank teachers at the end of her book?  (Loc. 3141)

Theme Ideas

Have everyone bring a black and white photo of their hands and try to guess whose they are in the spirit of Rebecca's appreciation for Jim's hands when she first met him. (ref. Loc. 145)

A variety of food options fit different occasions in the book:
Attend a photography exhibit.

Make collages with white crosses.  
Additional supplies might include: ribbon, gilt letters, fabric, cards, flowers, photos (Loc. 647)

Playlist:
Volunteer at an animal shelter in honor of Jack the dog.  (ref. Loc. 809)

Meet in an English Tea room.

Go to a corn maze. (ref. Loc. 911)

Make balloon animals in honor of Tad. (Loc. 950)  Hand out red foam noses to all the guests. (Loc. 991)

Have a recipe swap / pot luck.  (ref. Loc. 1418)

Have a fire with real fire wood since fires and wood are mentioned several times.

Decorate with candles like the ones Rebecca did not have when she was snowed in.  (Loc. 1928)

Decorate with a Coleman lantern like Jim brought Rebecca when she was snowed in. (Loc. 1951)

Hold a coat drive in honor of Rebecca's ruined parka. (Loc. 2384)

Go to a (Neopolitan) Italian restaurant like where Tad and Sarah went after the funeral.  (Loc. 2532)  
Perhaps one with opera-singing waiters and "tapers that dripped colored wax down Chianti bottles, Venetian scenes in enormous rococo gold frames on the walls".  (Loc. 2535)

Decorate with a large boquet of spring flowers like Maddie received from Paige. (Loc. 2673)

Meet in an Indonesian restaurant like when Maddie took Ben out to dinner. (Loc. 2674)

Meet at an "artisanal beer bar" like where Ben took Rebecca after the show. (Loc. 2707)

Read "The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry.  (Loc. 2948)

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