Still Life by Sarah Winman

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It was Ron Charles’ review in the Washington Post┬áthat took me to this audiobook. And what a treat it was; I spent 15 hours with these lovely characters, most of the time in Florence. Such a comfort.

It begins during World War II when a young British soldier named Ulysses meets a 64-year old woman named Evelyn Skinner in Italy as she was working on identifying and protecting art works. Their brief friendship began when she flagged him down for a ride in the hills of Tuscany.  Decades go by before they renewed their friendship.

Ulysses’s “family” involved a tough but good-hearted crowd centered in a pub in London called the Stoat and Parot. The parrot named Claude had gone silent during the blitz, but when we spend time with him, his comments are quite clever and relevant. Just before leaving for the war, Ulysses married Peg, a beautiful and talented singer. They were not committed to each other and when he returned, she had been abandoned by the American soldier she never stopped loving and had his child. The community included a widow of Indian abstraction who owned a nearby shop, a talented musician named Pete, the pub owner Col, and a man named Cressy who had many talents.

Ulysses inherited a large house in Florence from someone he met during the war; he made his way to Florence and eventually many in the pub family visited or moved there as well. The house was large enough to rent rooms to visitors. The joys of life in Florence over the decades are endless, from the food, to new friends, to stories of Peg’s daughter growing up. The description of Ulysses’s experience of the 1966 flood was vivid and detailed as he was fortunate to escape with his life. The family was able to take in “mud angels” who came to Florence to help reclaim art works damaged by the flood.

It was a picture in the paper of Ulysses during the flood that alerted Evelyn Skinner to his location. Because of his unusual name she was able to locate him and she and her loved one went to Florence. Eventually she moved to Florence and was a part of the “family.” A section near the end of the book was devoted to Evelyn’s first visit to Florence when she was 21. Of course it was a time of awakening and in her case, she awakened to her attraction to women. It happened that E.M. Forster was staying in the same pensione under the strict watch of his mother. Evelyn introduced him to more carefree approach to seeing Florence as she had thrown away her Baedecker. And yes, there was mention of a room with a view.

This was a lovely, fun book.

Sarah Winman, Still Life, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2021, 452 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library.

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