Rebecca Winter’s career as a photographer took off with a picture she called “Still Life With Bread Crumbs,” one of a series of impromptu shots of her messy kitchen. There were other successes, then a decline in popularity then a divorce, then her son’s leaving the nest, then her mother’s commitment to an expensive nursing home. Thus, when the novel opens, she finds herself a sixty-year-old has-been who is forced to sublet her expensive West Side Apartment in NYC and rent a cabin in rural upstate.
Her struggles with identity, loneliness, and self-esteem make for engrossing reading, and Anna Quindlan treats us to some excellent writing. She describes one character as having “the metabolism of a hummingbird and the face of a toucan.” Rebecca speculates about her husband’s infidelities and multiple marriages: “… maybe it was simple numerology. At thirty he had married his first wife. At forty he had married Rebecca. At fifty had married the assistant curator with whom Rebecca had surprised him … ” And you’ll find more and better throughout.
The characters in the small village near where her cabin lies provide comedy, pain, and life lessons as she wrestles with everything from her emotional distress to the snowdrifts that maroon her inside her cabin for days. Predictably, she finds her salvation and the resurrection of her career in the hills she wanders and photographs during her sojourn. Not so predictable is the source and content of that salvation and the mixed blessing it turns out to be.
All of this makes for a top-tier novel. However, the Hollywoodish ending undermines the genuine pain of Rebecca’s fight and the authenticity of her character. It carries the odor of a perfumy wrap-it-up rather than the inevitable outcome of the grueling experience she’s been through. Doesn’t ruin the book, and I’m glad I met and spent some time with Rebecca Winter, but it did dim the glow somewhat.