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Still Life With Bread Crumbs

By Anna Quindlen

Random House

252 pages, $26

Guests on Earth

By Lee Smith

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

337 pages, $25.95

By Karen Brady

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

Women on their own – by circumstance, not choice – are at the heart of two intriguing new novels by veteran authors Anna Quindlen and Lee Smith.

Neither writer, alas, is at the top of her game here but both Quindlen’s “Still Life with Bread Crumbs” and Smith’s “Guests on Earth” have pockets of excellence, and provocative story lines – Quindlen’s a telling yet witty tale for our times, Smith’s a heartfelt piece of historical fiction.

It is “Guests on Earth” that purports, at first, to be the more interesting of the two, giving us a young narrator, Evalina Toussaint, who is sent, while still a child, to Highland Hospital, in Asheville, N.C. The year is 1937 and Highland – a well-known sanitorium for individuals with mental and nervous conditions – is also housing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s talented, flamboyant and troubled wife, Zelda.

“It is far better to be dead than to be a princess in a tower, for you can never get out once they put you up there, you’ll see,” Mrs. Fitzgerald (as she is known in the book) tells Evalina. “You must live on the earth and mix with the hoi polloi.”

Hers is a layered statement, under the circumstances, and is clearly based on one of Scott Fitzgerald’s own. (“I used to wonder why they kept princesses in towers,” he wrote to Zelda more than once during their courtship.)

Smith’s title, “Guests on Earth,” is from Scott Fitzgerald as well – and she includes this line (from a letter he wrote to his daughter Scottie in 1940) in the book: “The insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.”

Sadly, though, and after a promising beginning, young Evalina’s version of events at Highland begins to flag and becomes hard to follow – as the cast of patients changes and grows and their individual back stories become longer and longer. Even as Evalina herself leaves Highland, only to return as a young woman, her world view remains naïve, her narration still childlike. “Illness infantilizes everybody,” she tells us in an incisive moment.

“The average person” she also says, “could never understand, I believe, how boring it is to be crazy – to be unable to live a regular life, unable to have a regular family or friends or a job, for instance, unable sometimes even to read or think or do anything except smoke, perhaps, on a veranda, staring into space. How wonderful it is, then, to make a cardboard hat, or a giant paper flower! To have, even for a moment, even if it’s all make-believe, a happy childhood.”

Placed in Highland by a stepfather who simply seemed to want her gone after her mother’s death, Evalina never strikes us as ill. She paints Highland fondly – with staff who are nurturing and protective and treatment that is pleasant and healthy, stressing physical and artistic activity and balanced diet. But Highland also uses controversial insulin shock therapy, something that – like Zelda Fitzgerald – is viewed in “Guests on Earth” only occasionally and mainly from afar.

In fact, actual appearances of both Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald are blessedly few here – for these sad sightings (at least to this reader) are intrusive, as if we have every right to the Fitzgeralds’ work and public life but no right at all to see and be with them at their lowest private moments, no right at all to read words Zelda may or may not have said or written at the height of her madness.

But Smith, we learn at the novel’s end, had her reasons. Highland Hospital is a part of her story: “My father was a patient there in the fifties,” she writes. “And I am especially grateful to Highland Hospital for the helpful years my son, Josh, spent there in the 1980s, in both inpatient and outpatient situations…”

Had Smith told us this before her novel’s start, Evalina’s journey may have seemed less tedious, and Smith’s overly detailed portrayals of Highland’s founder and his wife and others associated with the historic hospital (where Zelda Fitzgerald died in a fire in 1948) would have made perfect sense.

Unlike Smith’s young Evalina, the protagonist of Quindlen’s novel is a 60-year-old, once-famous photographer named Rebecca Winter – who is taking a financially prudent hiatus from her beloved Manhattan to live in a rickety cottage in the country where she is all but unknown.

“How did I wind up here?” Rebecca thinks early on as she finds herself alone in the dark and unable to discern the country night’s strange sounds. “How on earth did I wind up here?”

It is a sentiment with which readers of a certain age will surely identify, advancing age in itself being a voyage to a new land. Quindlen, soon to embark upon her own seventh decade, has her hand firmly on that pulse here, and she is with Rebecca every step of her uncertain way.

It is a plodding way, however. For, while Quindlen can be masterful at surmise and description, she also can be deadly with details, letting Rebecca (who is divorced from an apparently insufferable Englishman) go on and on and off on tangents while elsewhere, out of sight, a stranger is planting white crosses and memorabilia; Rebecca’s musician mother is playing an imaginary keyboard, day in and day out, in a nursing home; her nearly 90-year-old father is eking out his days with the family housekeeper, and a kind younger man, a country roofer, is waiting, so to speak, in the wings of the novel.

“Still Life with Bread Crumbs,” we learn, is more than a cutesy name: It is also the title of Rebecca’s photographic claim to fame – what she calls “a vaguely Flemish composition of dirty wineglasses, stacked plates, the torn ends of two baguettes, and a dish towel singed at one corner by the gas stove.”

An iconic image in the art world and beyond, Rebecca would rather not have it be her swan song: Surely there is more – to her work, to her life: “People froze you in space,” Rebecca sometimes thought … More important, you froze yourself, often into a person in whom you truly had no interest. So you had a choice: you could continue a masquerade, or you could give up on it.”

Rebecca, of course, will give up on it – “Still Life with Bread Crumbs” being predictable almost from the start. But the book is also quite funny. (In one flashback, a younger Rebecca is introduced to her mother’s friend: “The famous photographer?” the woman asks. “She’s getting a divorce,” Rebecca’s mother answers.)

Quindlen also gives us a wonderful “city mouse” pull, between Rebecca’s teeming Manhattan and her quiet country existence. Quindlen’s depictions of both are splendid, and the Quindlen wit, a leit-motif throughout the book, almost saves the day.

But, in the end – and there is only action toward the end – it is a matter of Quindlen having something important to say but taking far too long to say it.

Karen Brady is a former News columnist.