Still Life – by Sarah Winman – independent book review – Historical Fiction (World War II, Italy, England)

STILL LIFE is not an easy book to describe. Author Sarah Winman has created some wonderful characters, but not very much drama happens as they go about their daily lives. So, definitely NOT an action packed novel. Instead, it explores the nature of love and family. And how people can choose to assemble a chosen family, finding the kind of support and loyalty they may never have experienced in their families of origin. Awarded four stars on Goodreads.

Each character is fully drawn and distinctive. Together, they form a tight pack of quirky, smart, troubled, kind, and loyal people. This isn’t the kind of book where I kept rushing to pick it up to find out what happens next. But whenever I did pick up the book, I loved spending time with the people I found inside. And I cared deeply about them.

At the beginning, it’s near the end of World War II and two men stationed in Florence, Italy (Ulysses Temper and his superior officer) have a chance encounter with an older woman — a charismatic art historian who is restoring damaged art. The three form an instantaneous connection around their shared appreciation for art. And though they soon separate, that spark remains.

When the war ends, Ulysses returns to his home in England, where his wife, Peg, has not exactly been “chastely awaiting” his return. Ulysses is once again surrounded by his pre-war friends at the local pub: Cressy (an older man with a not-so-secret crush on Peg), Col (the unsentimental pub owner), and Pete (the pub’s sometime piano player). But Ulysses finds he isn’t able to settle back into his old life. Ultimately, he decides to return to Florence, though not alone.

Florence (Photo is in public domain.)

Florence soon becomes one of the book’s main characters. It’s history, art, food, weather, lifestyle —- it’s impossible to read the beautifully descriptive passages without sharing the author’s obvious love for the city. Ulysses finds Florence feels like a comfortable place to settle. So, he opens a small hotel and settles in among the locals.

Sarah Winman
(Photo from Wikipedia)

The book unfolds over a period of years. Children grow up. Friends age. Florence suffers serious flood damage in the 1960s and weathers assorted political conflicts. And slowly, others from Ulysses’ past wind up joining him.

STILL LIFE is a novel that requires you to pay attention. I recommend reading it slowly. The writing style is unique. There are no quotation marks to make it clear when someone is speaking (versus thinking) and the author primarily writes about everyday episodes in the lives of ordinary people. So you’ll need to be attentive to pick up the important details. If you do, you’ll wind up enjoying a lovely story about how important it is for everyone to seek out and welcome love, in whatever form it comes.

More about the author (and actress), Sarah Winman.

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