I have been on a bit of a historical fiction kick and Still Life by Sarah Winman fit the bill. I was influenced to pick up this book based on book reviewers that I rely on for good recommendations and ones that push me outside of my comfort zone. I am glad I chose this as a Book of the Month add on because it was a great book to slowly devour over a few weeks. I enjoyed it and fell in love with this kooky cast of characters. Ulysses and Evelyn are our patriarch and matriarch of the story, while Peg, "the kid", Cress, Col, and Pete bring so much humor and love to the story. Best literary character goes to Winman for Claude the parrot. (Sounds weird but trust me on this one.) Who knew a parrot could be such a perfect character?!
Synopsis (from Goodreads:)
Tuscany, 1944: As Allied troops advance and bombs fall around deserted villages, a young English soldier, Ulysses Temper, finds himself in the wine cellar of a deserted villa. There, he has a chance encounter with Evelyn Skinner, a middle-aged art historian who has come to Italy to salvage paintings from the ruins and recall long-forgotten memories of her own youth. In each other, Ulysses and Evelyn find a kindred spirit amongst the rubble of war-torn Italy and set off on a course of events that will shape Ulysses' life for the next four decades.
As Ulysses returns home to London, reimmersing himself in his crew at The Stoat and Parrot -- a motley mix of pub crawlers and eccentrics -- he carries his time in Italy with him. And when an unexpected inheritance brings him back to where it all began, Ulysses knows better than to tempt fate, and returns to the Tuscan hills.
Still Life is a story that will take you on a journey across time, between London and Florence, filled with texture, color, love and life. The sense of place is atmospheric and comes off the page. As I read, it felt like the chapters set in London were in black and white, while Florence, Italy was in technicolor. It took me a few chapters to really get into and have a general understanding of what was taking place, but once I did, I found myself connected to these characters. The dialogue is written into the text without parentheses, which reminded me of Sally Rooney, and was difficult to get used to at first, but once I did, I actually enjoyed how the author did this.
The art world was one that I do not know much about, but really touched a part of me. As a young girl, I loved drawing and art history. I remember loving the grade school trips to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, wandering the halls admiring the art and feeling wise beyond my years as I tried interpreting what each painting meant. Still Life brought those memories back and all the warm and fuzzy feelings.
What I loved about this book, apart from the setting and characters, was how serendipitous Ulysses and Evelyn's stories were. They meet at such a pivotal moment in each of their lives and, while it is a brief encounter, it is meaningful to each of them. Throughout the book, these characters have countless encounters where they almost cross paths, but it isn't until the latter half of the book where they finally run into each other.
The witty dialogue in this book reminded me of John Boyne's The Heart's Invisible Furies. Those that loved that book would enjoy the characters Still Life introduces you to and their hilarious banter. Still Life is a beautiful book with memorable characters and a storyline of what family, love, and friendship truly mean.
"The power of still life lies precisely in this triviality. Because it is a world of reliability. Of mutuality between objects that are there, and people who are not. Paused time in ghostly absence. Who was it who prepared the food? Who gutted the fish? Who scrubbed the kitchen? These are the actions that maintain life. Objects representing ordinary life reside in this space-plates, bowls, jars, pitchers, oyster knives. The shape of these objects has remained unchanged, as has their function. They have become fixed and unremarkable in this world of habit and we have taken them for granted. Yet within these forms something powerful is retained: Continuity. Memory. Family."
"The choice for the educated woman was clear and stark. Marriage and no creative expression. Or convent and creative expression. So, women entered the convent in order to paint. Such was the sacrifice. But when have women not sacrificed to live as they feel? Not all of us will embrace men, marriage, motherhood. Nor should we. We have one life, my dear Evelyn, one life and we must use it well."