Still Life, by Sara Winman

Mark Twain famously said, “Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Well, if my five year absence led you to believe the same of me, I’m happy to say, I’m not. I went silent in January 2017 due to writer’s block (I leave it to you to figure out its cause). To be honest, I always thought writer’s block was not really a thing. Writers are notoriously lazy and easily distracted. Well, this went way beyond that, and convinced me: it’s a thing. But, I think it’s passed …

I read more in the last five years than during any other time in my life. A number of books made me think, “This one. This is the one I want to write about.” And I tried. My WordPress file is awash in abandoned drafts. But Still Life really is the one, and I think I know why. This is a book about family and place – the family you are born with, and the family you choose; the place you are born, and the place you call home. At its core, it is a book about connection. What is more fundamental to life than that?

The book opens near the end of World War II, in the Tuscan hills near Florence, when two people meet: Ulysses, a young English soldier, hopelessly in love with a woman in England who he knows he cannot hold; and Evelyn, a decades-older, lesbian art historian who is madly in love with Florence, the city where she met E.M. Forster years earlier, in a pensione where she had a room with a view. Ulysses and Evelyn share an evening in a wine cellar that neither will ever forget throughout the many years they are apart.

After a brief visit to Florence which will one day upend his life, Ulysses returns to London and the pub which is the center of his work and love life. It is also the center of about the first third of the book – pages filled with eccentric, maddening, flawed and human characters that will capture your heart and imagination. Years pass, and I swear you will not be able to stop reading as life goes on: Ulysses’ wife breaks his heart (repeatedly), a child is born, London gets back on its feet, and a loquacious parrot steals every scene in which he appears. Then, on a day like any other, Ulysses receives word that he needs to return to Florence, and his life is utterly transformed – as are the lives of virtually every character over the course of many years. This is a story that defines the term “sweeping novel.”

I hope this is enough of a synopsis to pique your interest, because I don’t want to divulge anything else. It’s not that anything major happens; it’s just life, happening to every character. But Winman creates a cast of characters who inhabit a world you can see, taste and smell (it’s Italy, so food is a major character). And, through the comings and goings of all these characters, she builds a story about connection – connection to place, to friends, to family, to life, and even death. It’s brilliant, and it is the perfect book for the times in which we live. With confusion, sadness, loss, and division all around, this is a book to remind us what is important, and what we can create to bring us peace, togetherness, and even hope.

The Attentive Reader will note: at least half of the book takes place in Florence, a relatively small city with a zillion piazzas, bridges and churches. I read on an iPad, largely so I can highlight and look up definitions. While I read Still Life, I also toggled to Google maps, literally tracing the footsteps of characters as they roamed throughout the city, and then switching to Images to see what they were seeing. Winman knows the city like the back of her hand and, in an era when we are starved for adventure in faraway places, this is a rich armchair travel experience. I encourage you to try it.