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Still Life

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From acclaimed author of Tin Man , Sarah Winman, comes a captivating new novel of people brought together across four decades of love, war, art, flood, and the ghost of E. M. Forster.

Tuscany, 1944: As Allied troops advance and bombs fall around deserted villages, a young English solder, Ulysses Temper, finds himself in the wine cellar of a Tuscan 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 Florence, her lost love, and a surprising friendship with a young E. M. Forster.

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's life for the next four decades. As he returns home to the East End of London, reimmersing himself in his crew at The Stoat and Parrot--a motley mix of pub crawlers and eccentrics--Ulysses 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.

With gorgeous prose and extraordinary tenderness, Still Life is a richly drawn tapestry of the individuals who come together to make a family, and a sweeping portrait of beauty and love.

656 pages, Paperback

First published June 1, 2021

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About the author

Sarah Winman

8 books1,917 followers
Sarah Winman (born 1964) is a British actress and author. In 2011 her debut novel When God Was a Rabbit became an international bestseller and won Winman several awards including New Writer of the Year in the Galaxy National Book Awards.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 5,015 reviews
Profile Image for Angela M .
1,284 reviews2,205 followers
August 15, 2021
One of the joys of reading for me is finding a story like this one. It’s one that is so full of life, of characters whose lives are bound to each other in such a beautiful way with such a depth of love for each other. While this is a very different story than Sarah Winman’s Tin Man, I remember being so moved by the relationships between the characters there, too.

A chance meeting in Florence during the war in 1944 forges a bond between sixty four year old art historian Evelyn Skinner, who is there to help save paintings and twenty four year old, British soldier Ulysses Temper. The impression they make on each other results in an enduring friendship, even though years go by before they see each again. Evelyn goes back to London to teach and Ulysses returns to London and the people he left behind, a motley cast of characters at the pub where he worked. While the novel in many ways is centered on Ulysses and Evelyn’s lives, it’s an ensemble of characters that bring so much life here. Ulysses’ singer wife, Peg who wasn’t exactly true to him and now has a child. Peg is probably the character I understood the least, but still cared about. Alys is Peg’s precocious child whom Ulysses loves and raises as his own. Cressy, the closest thing to a father to Ulysses, is so endearing that you just can’t help but go with the conversations he has with a tree at times. He is one of my favorite characters if I had to choose. There’s Pete the wonderful piano player and Col the inimitable proprietor of the pub. When Ulysses, Alys and Cressy move to Florence after Ulysses receives an inheritance from a man whose life he saved as a young soldier, we meet the amazing Massimo who is the friend we all hope for. I can’t forget Claude, the wise parrot who quotes Shakespeare.

For those who may be put off by the surreal touches, I would just say, if you let those keep you from reading this, you would be missing out on so much. This is a beautiful story that spans decades in the lives of characters that not only connect beautifully with each other, but to this reader. There is war at the beginning and the flooding of Florence in 1966, and through the years there is heartbreak and grief and loss, but there is Italy and art and music and food, friendship and love and joy . Not much more to say, other than that I loved everything about this book and I didn’t want it to end.

I received an advanced copy of this book from G.P. Putnam’s Sons/Penguin through Edelweiss.
Profile Image for jessica.
2,533 reviews32.3k followers
October 28, 2021
this book is exactly like a still life painting - everyone is going to get something different out of it. for some, it may not resonate. but for others, it may be the story that speaks to them.

for me, im on the fence. while i dont mind character-driven novels, especially ones that have a large cast of amazing characters such as this, i do want some sort of plot. and considering how many decades this story spans, as well as the chunky physical length of the book, i was expecting a bit more on that front.

i am also not the type of reader who appreciates when authors make certain stylistic choices, such as not using quotations marks. theres soooo much dialogue in this, so it drove me up the wall.

that being said, i enjoyed the descriptions of europe and how the different cities changed over the course of the characters lives and history. and again, i do think the characters are pretty note-worthy, even the ones who werent my favourite. ulysses is a great main character and the primary reason why i kept picking this book back up.

but as with art, i know there are going to be some readers who will immediately fall head over heels in love with this, while others might quickly move onto the next book without a second glance back. and being the indecisive person that i am, im somewhere in the middle.

thanks so much g.p. putnams sons for the ARC!

3 stars
Profile Image for Paromjit.
2,599 reviews24.7k followers
August 18, 2021
A wonderfully joyful piece of historical fiction with oodles of heart, set in London's East End and the beautiful city of Florence. Sorry about the short review but my laptop has given up the ghost…..waiting for a new one to arrive….hopefully at the weekend!
Profile Image for Libby.
581 reviews157 followers
November 24, 2021
If listening to the evening news has ever left you feeling as though you were on an edifice that was starting to crumble into the great abyss…, and made you hungry to remember again the sacred beauty of what it means to be human, Sarah Winman is an author that can satisfy that need. ‘Still Life’ is a book that caused me to consider the wonderment of friendships, the joy and colors of love in all its forms, and the enduring loyalties of the people we choose to call family. There is a richness in Winman’s prose that is elegant and almost worshipful of soft, still, moments. Her words are like a camera that captures a moment and holds it out for us to absorb into our senses. In her fluid narrative, I felt strengthened by her recognition of what is most important in life, the connections that bind us, whether they are biological or chosen. In this narrative, most of them are chosen, and there’s something very empowering about that. It tells me, don’t limit yourself to biology. The people that are meant to be meaningful and connected to your life are the ones you choose.

Ulysses Temper is an English soldier in Tuscany, Italy, in 1944 at the beginning of the story. 24-years-old, Ulysses has fallen in love with the Italian countryside. With his good friend, Captain Darnley, they have sought out frescoes and other gems of artwork. Ulysses meets Evelyn Skinner, an art historian in her 60s, who is in Italy to help as art that has been looted by German soldiers is recovered. Evelyn is part of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program. Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation's Treasures from the Nazis by Robert M. Edsel is a book about the history of the Monuments Men. Another book on the subject is The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter. ‘The Monuments Men’ movie directed by George Clooney and based on the book was released in 2014. As Darnley shows Evelyn a recovered cache of art, Evelyn ever the teacher, talks about the style of the art, the use of color, then says, “It’s about feeling, Ulysses that’s all. People trying to make sense of something they can’t make sense of.” Throughout the book, I get the sense that Winman is marrying emotion to art, to music, to food. Just like the Monuments Men, Winman is returning something that we may have lost while listening to the daily news, our sense of beauty and wonder in the world.

This is not a fast-paced narrative, although it’s not exactly slow-paced, either. I read it slowly, trying to savor the words and thoughts while immersing myself in the feeling of community. Themes are art and beauty. Luck is a thread that runs throughout the novel. Ulysses is named after a winning greyhound dog. ‘Place everything on the black,’ are comments made by Ulysses’s father, and a friend of his father’s, Cress. Cress is such a unique character. He talks to trees and spouts poetry, and knows how to drug Claude, the parrot, in order to get him through customs. Claude often quotes Shakespeare and is one more wise bird, but gets upset easily by Col, who runs the bar in London. Then poor ole Claude has run-on droppings.

While reading this one, I was brought to tears more than once, which is maybe not saying much because I’m the person who can brim during movie trailers. However, when Winman describes how the community reacted to the 1966 flood of the Arno in Florence, how Ulysses and his neighbors looked out for one another, and Claude flew a candle over the way to a man who was without any light, some hardened surface in my heart cracked a little. Students poured in from many countries to help Florence. Young people offering the gift of their youth...to help out. This is not a story where bad things don’t happen. Bad things happen… and then people help each other out.
Profile Image for Jen CAN.
486 reviews1,356 followers
January 4, 2022
Such a charming journey. Ulysses, a Brit, in Italy during the war saves a man from suicide. One good turn leads to another and 9 years later, Ulysses is bequeathed the property of the man after he passes.
He takes his adopted daughter and a friend to Italy and from there a new life begins.
Ah such delightful characters and beauty to behold in Italy. Such a romantic place - the food, the wine, the friends, the art the landscape, the family formed, the bird!
This was a story I could embrace and dream about being immersed in.
A fantastic way to kickoff the new year. 5⭐️
Profile Image for Barbara.
1,336 reviews693 followers
December 7, 2021
“Still Life” by Sarah Winman is one of my 2021 favorites. She is one gifted storyteller. My grateful and “full” reading experience is akin to when I finished Amor Towles’ “A Gentleman in Moscow”. Both novels involve life/people stories backdropped in historical fiction. And both are amazing novels that sing in your heart.

In “Still Life” the wonderful art historian character, Evelyn Skinner begins her career in Florence Italy, unchaperoned (gasp!) at age 20 under the tutelage of the enthusiastic poet Constance Everly. But we meet Evelyn initially at age 64 in 1944 Italy when she is part of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives officers who were charged with identifying all the precious art works to keep them from being destroyed in WWII. She meets Private Temper aka Temps aka Ulysses while he was driving his jeep to pick up his Captain. Evelyn learns that Ulysses was named after a greyhound….a winning greyhound!. Hence begins their relationship. She educates Temps to the beauty and importance of art. This shared love carries Temps through his life.

Their life trajectories part for a few decades. Temps returns to England after the war. He learns he’s inherited a large apartment in Florence. He takes his x-wife’s young daughter, Alys, his dear friend Cress, who talks to trees and owns a purple parrot, Claude. I loved the addition of Claude and his antics. Winman used him to bring a smile and a chuckle to the reader.

Similar to “A Gentleman In Moscow” one cannot include all the character antics that cover 4 decades. This is a series of life moments that include historical events. In addition to WWII and the mission of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Achieves department, Winman includes the devastating 1966 flood in personal form. Major artwork was harmed in that flood; hundreds become homeless and livelihoods were destroyed. Winman writes these “still life” or stories of side characters and major characters that creates “real life” films in the readers heads.

Temps and his crew are a motley crew, especially when his ex-wife joins them. Her daughter, Alys, grows up before the reader’s eye. She starts as a fierce independent child and grows into an equally fierce young woman and artist. In fact, all forms of art are part of the story, including barroom singing.

Why is this special? It’s the prose. It’s the intertwining character stories. It’s the historical events. It’s the engrossing quirky characters. It’s the history of Florence, Italy. Finally, it’s the satisfaction of reading a beautiful novel.

Profile Image for Ceecee.
1,966 reviews1,499 followers
April 4, 2021
4.5 rounded up

This is a wonderful character driven story of kindred spirits which takes us on an emotional journey from Florence to the East End of London. In 1944 Evelyn Skinner and Margaret Somebody or other meet Private Ulysses Temper of the 8th Army in the Tuscan Hills. Evelyn and Ulysses form a connection and a bond that will remain for many years. Meanwhile in London, Uly’s wife Peg is enduring the war years as best she can with some ‘comforting’ from Eddie an American soldier. Post war the action alternates between the two areas - in London it centres on The Stoat and Parot with landlord Col and wonderful customers like Cress and Pete.

Where to start?? I adore the way Sarah Winman writes, her descriptions are so lovely that the quality of the writing makes my heart sing!!! There’s humour some of which is burst out loud laughter it’s so original, some of the phrases, thoughts and asides the characters make me absolutely crack me up! The art, the richness of the Florentine heritage, the wine, the food, the glorious characters with lively conversations that make you feel as if you’re a welcome guest at their table and they are also your friends. It’s hard to pick out the characters as they’re all fantastic with some traits towards the eccentric which always resonates with me but if I have to pick one apart from Uly then it has to be Cress and Claude the parrot is hysterical. Who knew a parrot read Shakespeare!? There are some colourful sections such as two men, one attired in shorts, a girl, a parrot, a car named Betsy and an ancient Baedeker journey from the East End to settle in Florence. As it turns out, all roads lead to Florence for the characters in the book. This wonderful book is about love, deep and lasting friendship, complex relationships, beauty in the simple things as well as wondrous ones, there’s kindness, compassion and some sadness. I confess to the occasional tear but it’s mostly full of joy. I like how the story is set in its historical context with real events referenced such as the disastrous floods in Florence of 1966. My only reservation is how the book backtracks at the end to Evelyn’s first encounter with Florence which I didn’t find as enjoyable as being with the east end crew, in spite of the colourful ‘portrait’ of EM Forster!

Overall, an emotional, moving, hilarious, joyous, clever and beautifully written book which I love. I’ll always want to read anything by Sarah Winman as she creates magic with words.

With thanks to NetGalley and especially to 4th Estate for the much appreciated arc in return for an honest review
Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,032 reviews48.4k followers
November 23, 2021
I’m not promising too much by claiming that Sarah Winman’s “Still Life” is a tonic for wanderlust and a cure for loneliness. It’s that rare, affectionate novel that makes one feel grateful to have been carried along. Unfurling with no more hurry than a Saturday night among old friends, the story celebrates the myriad ways love is expressed and families are formed.

That may sound suspiciously sentimental, but the joys of “Still Life” are cured in a furnace of tragedy. The action begins in Italy during World War II. As bombs fall around them, a young British soldier named Ulysses runs across Miss Evelyn Skinner, a 64-year-old art historian. She’s been commissioned to help identify masterpieces hidden in the Tuscan hills to protect them from theft and destruction. When Ulysses questions the relevance of her work amid the human carnage of war, she’s ready: “Beautiful art opens our eyes to the beauty of the world, Ulysses. It repositions our sight and judgment. Captures forever that which is fleeting,” Evelyn says. “Art versus humanity is not the question, Ulysses. One doesn’t exist without the other.”

Ulysses, an unusually thoughtful and compassionate man, will never forget that lesson, but he has no reason to think he’ll ever see Evelyn again. The war, after all, is a great scrambler of human beings, a calamity as adept at forging relationships as breaking them apart. Indeed, the rest of “Still Life” — some 400 pages spread over several decades — takes place in the shadow of that common trauma of missing someone. . . .

To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post:
Profile Image for Jasmine.
232 reviews220 followers
December 29, 2021
Still Life by Sarah Winman is a love letter to Florence, Italy. An easy five stars.

In Tuscany, during World War II, Evelyn Skinner, a 64-year-old art historian, meets Ulysses Temper, a young British soldier. Their chance encounter forms an enduring bond of friendship that leaves a lasting impression on Ulysses and helps shape the rest of his life. Meanwhile, Evelyn is in Florence trying to rescue paintings from the war and reminisce on her first visit to Florence when she fell in love with a beautiful maid named Livia.

Fast forward to after the war, Massimo, an Italian lawyer, presents Ulysses with the opportunity to return to Florence and see where it takes him.

Still Life sweeps across four decades and into the lives of characters that will steal your heart. I can’t even choose a favourite character; they are all to-die-for. We have Claude, a talking parrot full of wisdom and one-liners; old Cressy, a loving father figure to everyone; Pete, a goofy but talented piano player. And so many more.

This story is the kind of historical fiction I love. It’s full of art, love, friendships, and mouth-watering descriptions of Italian food. I may or may not have shed a few tears while reading it.

This remarkable tale will make you want to hop on a plane and visit the beauty that is Florence.

Thank you to Viking for the arc via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,001 reviews35.9k followers
October 30, 2021
“Still Life”….is wonderful - historical novel. (very different from “Tin Man”…but equally differently terrific).

“Two people pulling each other into Salvation is the only theme I find worthwhile”.
….E. M. Forester, Commonplace Book

THE CHARACTERS in ‘Still Life’ are a standout!!!
I loved spending time with them: Ulysses, Evelyn, Peg, Alys, Col, Cressy, Pianist Pete, and a blue fronted Amazonian parrot named, Claude. >
I was easily transported to an earlier time (the end of WWII- with these collective characters — and their fresh-enjoyable (often playful), dialogue with each other.

I read this 464 page book in 2 days. I literally blocked out the rest of the world…. and lived in ‘this’ literary-wonderful world.
2021 has been a fantastic book year ….. ( so many great books),
“Still Life” is one of the TOP GREAT READS - among the very best!
…..historical fiction: beauties of Florence Italy — great characters- story - prose - friendships - love - laughter - heartbreaking & heartwarming moments - wisdom - relatable- and a great tribute to ITALY!!

Lovely excerpts:
“Beautiful art opens our eyes to the beauty of the world, Ulysses. It repositions our sight and judgment. Captures forever that which is fleeting. A meager stain in the corridors of history, that’s all we are. A little mark of scuff.
One hundred and fifty years ago Napoleon breathed the same air as we do now. The battalion of time marches on. Art versus humanity is not the question, Ulysses. One doesn’t exist without the other. Art is the antidote. Is that enough to make it important? Well, yes, I think it is”.

“There are moments in life so monumental and still that the memory can never be retrieved without a catch to the throat or an interruption to the beat of the heart. Can never be retrieved without the rumbling disquiet of how close that moment came to not having happened at all”.

“Eight days it would take. Eight days to cross three countries and countless landscapes”
“They had seen wild boar and falcons and stars falling across the Alps. And they’d come to rely on one another because they were all they had”.

“We’re embarking on a world as a new language and new systems. A world of stares and misunderstandings and humiliation‘s and we’ll feel every single one of them, boy. But we mustn’t let our inability to know what’s diminish us. Because it’ll try. We have to remain curious and open”.

“Even those whose usual avocations are of the most ‘prosaic’ nature unconsciously become admirers of poetry and art in Italy”.

“The parrot was wearing shorts?”…… you betcha! 🦜🩳
Profile Image for Carolyn.
2,171 reviews615 followers
May 21, 2023
This wonderful, rich and multilayered novel deserves every one of the great reviews it has been receiving. It sweeps us from war torn Tuscany to a pub in the East End of London and on to the magic and splendour that is Florence with characters who are larger than life.

Private Ulysses Temper is a soldier with the British army in 1944, chasing the Germans out of the Tuscan hills at the end of WW2, when he meets Evelyn Skinner, a sixty year old art historian, on a road in Tuscany. She has come to Italy to help salvage art works from the ruins of war and over wine and cheese in a dusty cellar, regales him with tales of visiting Florence as a young woman, where she first fell in love, met E.M. Forster and developed a passion for art. Little does Ulysses realise then how much this chance meeting will sew the seeds that will work to radically change his life before he finally meets Evelyn again.

While Ulysses is at the heart of the novel, he has quite a cast of unconventional characters circling around him. The love of his life, Peg, who is in love with someone else, her daughter Alys ‘the kid’ who Ulysses takes under his wing, Pete the piano player who comes and goes, Evelyn of course and then there is Cress, wonderful, kind and wise and always there for Ulysses. It’s also impossible not to mention Claude the Shakespeare-quoting Amazonian parrot, who is very much part of this ragtag family of sorts. There is discussion or art, philosophy and women’s rights as well as love affairs and death and the heartbreaking destruction of the 1966 Florentine floods. Spanning thirty years and many great friendships, this is a book that totally pulls you in to the world it creates. One that I didn’t want to end and one that I know I will enjoy reading again.

With many thanks to Harper Collins Australia and Netgalley for a copy to read
Profile Image for Violet wells.
433 reviews3,043 followers
December 2, 2021
Whenever I read a book about Florence I like to see if I could have helped with the research. It wasn't long before I detected the first error here. The statue of Dante was not beside the church in 1944 as the author places it; it was in the middle of piazza Santa Croce and only moved after the flood of 1966 when the first surge of floodwater reached Dante's ankles and almost threatened to topple him from his pedestal. It's strange that she covers the flood in this novel and does an excellent job of evoking it but didn't come across this rather famous piece of information in her research. I think it's three times she has Dante in the wrong place.

Zadie Smith famously rewrote EM Forster's Howard End; here Sarah Winman mischievously takes on A Room with a View. The first thing to be said it that Sarah Winman is no Zadie Smith. Mostly this is a matter of intellect. Zadie's is more rigorous, subtle and insightful. In fact it's often failings of intellect and failings to depict intellect that let this novel down for me.

Winman is very good at writing whimsy comedy. And she's good at creating big hearted characters with modest intellectual aspirations. Her characters are like people in TV commercials - brimming with goodness and generosity and laughter. They are what we would like people to be like rather than like how people really are. It's a novel that needs to be read as a feel-good fairy story. And there are sections of it that work well in this regard.

All the problems arose for me when Evelyn Skinner is the focus. It's a shame because she's a good character - a bon-vivant lesbian who always has a ready smile. She's a good character except when the author tries to convince us she's an authority on art history. The book begins with her and begins badly. It's odd that a novel with feminist aspirations allows a woman to do a job women were not entitled to at the time, that of being on the front lines as art conservers. There's a silly scene in the Boboli gardens when a sniper must have a modern high-powered rifle to be able to take shots at people in the gardens from the tower at Bellosguardo. And it's here the crass sermons on art history begin which reminded me of the stuff I used to translate in mass market tourist guides.

The novel both begins and ends with Evelyn. There's also a female poet and EM Forster himself in the final section. If you're going to write a novel which wants to extol the creative gifts of women it's not good that your female characters leave a lot to be desired in their respective professions. The female poet is more convincing as an author of wish-fulfilment romance fiction than a rival of TS Eliot. I'm not even sure why it's still necessary to return to the patently obvious assertion that women could have been as talented as men given the opportunity. We've all by now been in mixed classrooms, art studios, music rooms. It's no longer debatable as an idea. Her (probably inadvertent) ridiculing of Forster is especially hapless. The author simply doesn't have Forster's intelligence to make him anything but an inept cartoon presence. I suspect her desire to put Forster in and attribute some of his ideas for his novel to Evelyn was meant as a playful homage but Winman is like an over exuberant child who doesn't know when to stop with her self-pleasuring mischief. The whole section with Forster, beyond bad, was like reading a third-rate novelist at work.

Lastly, it's a novel that gives Florence the hard sell. Again like the mass market tourist guides I used to translate. At times she did a good job of bringing Florence to life though it was also obvious the author has only ever stayed there and never lived there. During my first month of living there two Senegalese street sellers were beaten up with baseball bats by a group of racist thugs. Like any other city there's ugliness too in Florence. It isn't Disneyworld.
Profile Image for Candi.
614 reviews4,631 followers
April 30, 2023
Well, that was a bit of a disappointment, though not a poorly written novel. I loved Tin Man and was bursting with excitement when I first saw this one was being published. Not to mention, the gorgeous, signed copy I have in my possession made the reading experience even more highly anticipated. But damn, now I feel like that party pooper that watches a warm-the-cockles-of- your-heart Hallmark movie with a bunch of her girlfriends. You know the one I mean – she’s the one constantly offering to get up and refill the wine glasses and the chips and dip bowls so her constant grimacing goes unnoticed. I’m admitting it right now – that girl is me and please feel free to boo and hiss all you want – but please don’t waste that perfectly good salsa by throwing it in my face. After all, I did kindly refill your beverage; I’m just too damned demanding!

So what’s my problem now, you ask? Well, no one wants to hear me make a fuss about “voice” again, so I’ll leave that alone. What about the sheer quantity of characters though – there were just too many of them, giving them all a feeling of being a “type” rather than fully fleshed out individuals. Also, I don’t always mind when quotation marks are dumped, but here there were too many times when I wasn’t sure if a character was talking to another, or if the author herself was speaking to us or that character. I’ll provide an example:

“Cress thought Evelyn had something of the poets about her, but didn’t everyone that year, Cress? Loss and love. The only ingredients required.”

Or take a look at this one, in reference to the character of Peg:

“Her beauty had been her currency. Always had been. No one talked about when the bank ran dry as it inevitably would. All those books she never read. All those museums she’d rubbished as brain-box boring. Cressy said it took effort to turn a page. Takes patience and care, Peg. Takes a leap of grace to say I don’t know.”

I’m sorry, but it’s like nails on a chalkboard to me! And it’s just a bit too… I don’t know – preachy? Like the author is saying, if you don’t get the lesson, here it is summarized for you. Too much telling and not enough showing for this reader, I guess. I’m afraid I prefer to draw my own conclusions about any lessons to be learned. Come to think of it, I didn’t draw any of my own conclusions, as all the work was done for me by Sarah Winman.

Having said all that, I do love the idea of family being more than just blood relatives. I’m totally on board with the thought that we love who we love. And it’s fun to imagine one great big “family” supporting one another through the decades. Visiting Florence is fun too, and so is art.

“Art versus humanity is not the question. One doesn’t exist without the other. Art is the antidote.”

A cameo appearance by E.M. Forster in theory should have been a delight as well. Unfortunately, all it managed to do was remind me that Winman has created her own version of A Room with a View, a beloved book. This then becomes dangerous ground! How can I forgo any comparisons when Winman inserts the author of that book into her own story? One character even carries a copy of that wonderful novel around with him! This is not a bad book. However, high expectations that end with a feeling of something having been simply “good” rather than inspiring makes me grouchy these days. You could say I’ve become rather finicky, not unlike the poor, sick cat in the other room. We’re both in need of a serious recharge! Pass the dip, please.
Profile Image for Karen.
573 reviews1,114 followers
January 4, 2022
This novel spans four decades .. during and after World War ll, in Europe. Some of the story takes place in England where old friends regularly gather at a certain bar and then slowly, most of them end up in Florence, Italy.
I loved these characters … I loved how these friends became family ..and the best parts of the book was when they were all together.
I loved Tin Man and I liked this one… and I look forward to whatever else this author writes.

I sure loved Ulysses! ❤️
Profile Image for Gerhard.
1,051 reviews525 followers
September 10, 2021
So, time heals. Mostly. Sometimes carelessly. And in unsuspecting moments, the pain catches and reminds one of all that’s been missing. The fulcrum of what might have been. But then it passes. Winter moves into spring and swallows return. The proximity of new skin returns to the sheets. Beauty does what is required. Jobs fulfil and conversations inspire. Loneliness becomes a mere Sunday. Scattered clothes. Empty bowls. Rotting fruit. Passing time. But still life in all its beauty and complexity.

Apropos of nothing, I just read an excellent review of ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’ by Sally Rooney, and found myself swooning over the book. I have yet to read Rooney, but that title is so epically wistful. Sigh.

What is wrong with me? I have just read a book mainly set in Florence, Italy. The author spends an inordinate amount of time (probably a 100-pages too long) musing about, and lingering on, great works of art and artists, food (there are many, many shared meals, and detailed descriptions of said meals, and the accompanying wines, etc.)

And then there is the particular quality of light in Florence, which helps one forgive the fact that it is quite smelly, for divinity must always be accompanied by mundanity. And where a central character is a parrot named Claude that swears like a sailor and quotes Shakespeare. (Hence that gorgeous cover illustration.)

Mainly it revolves around a fictitious encounter between Evelyn and the gauche and impressionable E.M. Forster and the pensione where he was staying with (or rather, enduring being with) his overbearing, insufferable mother. Evelyn, at the time, is enjoying a rather steamy dalliance with a maid who strikes her eye. Her advice to the young Forster:

Good luck, Mr Forster. I see good things for you.
Do you really?
Wonderful things. And remember: cherish the body, and the soul will follow.
Who said that?
The Greeks, probably, she said.

Of course, all of this (including the Cockney owner of the pensione, as I recall) was grist for the mill for ‘A Room With a View’, which Sarah Winman has great fun in deconstructing and venerating at the same time.

So, this book is sentimental and melodramatic and quite over the top, and really far too long. But I found myself slowing down, fearful for the fate of these glorious characters, and what might happen to them when I reached the inevitable ‘end’ (of the book, and their lives. Being a melodrama, Winman wrings every ounce of emotion and nostalgia out of her decades-long saga.)

And as I have mentioned, I loved it. My reaction to this book would definitely have been different pre Covid-19. It is just ‘not my cup of tea’, as the British always manage to say with such damning snobbery. A swooning, sentimental melodrama about Forster and what has to be one of the most romantic novels ever written? (Even if he was a ‘queer’, as Evelyn points out helpfully – she can be as blunt as Claude the parrot.)

Yes, yes, and yes. There is so much doom-and-gloom and existential malaise in our world right now. So far, 2021 has been much worse than last year, simply if you look at the inexorable toll that Covid-19 has taken, not only in terms of friends and loved ones lost to the pandemic, but the erosion of our own simple humanity. At this point in time, I am soul-weary.

Heavens, I find myself binge-watching ‘The World’s Most Amazing Vacation Rentals’, simply to remind myself there is still a world out there to appreciate. (It was briefly in the South African top ten shows on Netflix, which obviously means other people feel the same). So, if it takes Claude the parrot and that bloody Baedeker to kindle a spark of wonder, beauty, and purpose in my lockdown heart, then Sarah Winman has served the Muse well.
Profile Image for Trudie.
525 reviews558 followers
May 28, 2023

I get it, I get it already. Florence is the city of Love and Light!, Art! Poetry! and Perfect Pasta!. Once you have opened your heart to the place, you must wax lyrical about it for the entire length of a 400-page novel.

Essentially, this is Friends set in Florence with an English cast and a bonus parrot.

Now look, I see why this is popular. Still Life is the most 'feel good' novel you could possibly imagine, a cornucopia of sensory delight, an armchair travellers dream. But for a reader that is even slightly allergic to schmaltz then this novel is going to set your teeth on edge.

Possibly this review is all a little bit hasty and mean-spirited. Blame it on the totally redundant last chapter and the squandered promise of the opening one. Would I have liked this more if it was all Evelyn Skinner, all the time? Maybe.

( Timaru Booksellers book of the year - eh ? .... Well we may need to have words ;) )
Profile Image for Cheri.
1,739 reviews2,265 followers
November 6, 2021

’Once is enough. We just need to know what the heart’s capable of, Evelyn.
And do you know what it’s capable of?
I do. Grace and fury.’

An ode to art, to a time and place, and a shared ’belief that a combination of intellect and beauty can make the world a better place.’

’It’s what we’ve always done. Left a mark on a cave or on a page. Showing who we are, sharing our view of the world, the life we’re made to bear. Our turmoil is revealed in those painted faces--sometimes tenderly, sometimes grotesquely, but art becomes a mirror. All the symbolism and the paradox, ours to interpret. That’s how it becomes part of us. And as counterpoint to our suffering, we have beauty. We like beauty, don’t we? Something good on the eye cheers us. Does something to us on a cellular level, makes us feel alive and enriched. Beautiful art opens our eyes to the beauty of the world, Ulysses. It repositions our sight and judgment. Captures forever that which is fleeting. A meager stain in the corridors of history, that’s all we are. A little mark of scuff. One hundred and fifty years ago Napoleon breathed the same air as we do now. The battalion of time marches on. Art versus humanity is not the question, Ulysses. One doesn’t exist without the other. Art is the antidote.’

Set mostly in Florence, this is a story of family. Not your typical Father/Mother with 2.5 kids kind of family, this is a family made up of friends acquired along the way who have come to live in Florence in the mid 20th century, when the bombs were still falling, which adds to the desire to live life fully while they still can, and appreciate what beauty there is left in life with an intensity as the world seems to be crumbling around them.

A love story, if a somewhat atypical one. A story of friendship, of family, both the ones we are born into and the ones that we create from the people we meet as we travel through life. It is the story of war, the destruction to the land, and the destruction to the people whose lives are affected, and the friendships that were born of the time. A love story to a place and time, and to love, in all its many forms.

At 464 pages, this is not a quick or light read, but it is one that will now live inside me, as all the best stories do.
Profile Image for Diane Barnes.
1,252 reviews451 followers
December 23, 2021
At my age, it's doubtful whether I will ever make it to Florence in person, but being there in the pages of this book was a wonderful way to travel. The food, the wine, the art, the music, the people! What a great few days I spent in the company of this cobbled together family who found Florence, each in their own way, and decided to make a life there. Did I mention the food and the wine? I don't want to forget Claude, the parrot who quoted Shakespeare, and gave good advice without being asked. What a guy!

If you can believe, just a little bit, in miracles and rare coincidences, and finding joy in the little things like sunsets, the pattern of light through the trees, tiny flowers growing through the pavements and people finding love and friendship when it's least expected, and in unexpected ways, do yourself a favor and go to Florence via this novel.

Did I mention the food and wine?
Profile Image for Polly.
123 reviews24 followers
May 30, 2021
Having absolutely loved Tin Man, I was really looking forward to this new one by Sarah Winman. And... I wish I'd loved it more.

Once again, it's beautifully character-driven with a simple yet emotive writing style. Characters lead the story rather than plot, however of a book of this length I was kind of waiting for... something to happen. It's a long old book and — although this is because it spans decades in both Florence and East London in the mid-20th century — perhaps it could have worked better if it was trimmed down significantly.

This next point comes down to personal preference, but my god I wish Winman used quotation marks. As a stylistic choice, I understand that it can lend itself to the slightly whimsical, flowing writing style that she has, however in a book with quite as much dialogue as this one (entire scenes can be practically all dialogue), it just feels like a barrier to overcome while reading it. At times it's entirely unclear not only who is speaking, but whether anyone is at all or whether a sentence is part of the prose.

Most of the notes I made while reading where slightly towards the negative end of the scale... and yet... I really enjoyed so much of it. I loved the descriptions of Florence and the East End. I loved seeing them change subtly over the time that the book spans. I loved the writing about historical events that are touched upon — the Second World War and the 1966 flood of the Arno being two of the key ones. I loved so many of the characters, and how they all developed throughout the book.

I've already recommended this book to a couple of people I know who are as in love with Florence as a person can be, yet overall I'm not really sure how I feel about it. Disappointed, probably, however that is mostly down to having such high expectations based on a previous Winman book. It's certainly not bad. In fact it's pretty damn good.

And yet.
Profile Image for Margitte.
1,161 reviews509 followers
July 19, 2022
Truly? Honestly? Really?

I spent almost three days reading this novel and just threw in the towel after 75% in. I did read the last chapter to find some sort of reason why I should continue. I did not find it. It was just more of the same, with a blunt ... whatever. I really tried again. And then again.

Most readers experienced it as a joyful, almost noble and serene ode to Florence, Italian art, art history, and the optimism with which large parts of Europe had to be rebuilt after WWII. It is the part of this book that I really enjoyed as well. Beautiful prose. The author does comedy really well.

Private Ulysses(Uly) Temper —Ulysses' enthusiasm for life was a panacea - said Evelyn.
Evelyn Skinner - the art historian and main character

The characters that really kept this book together:
Captain Darnley — a gentleman until the very end; Short-lived appearance in the book.
The wordy parrot named Claude;
Col Formiloe — the London bar owner — probably the most interesting of all (to me at least);
Ginny, Col's daughter — Cressy called her engrossing and she was engrossing, till she opened her mouth and a kid tumbled out.
Alfred Cresswell (Cress) — my favorite; a darling man, perpetually in love with science;
Signor Massimo Buontalenti - another big favorite — a genuine Italian gentleman lawyer ;
Piano Peter — an absolute peaceful soul. I just loved him.
Peggy Temper — an abused women with multiple talents. But also the woman with the golden voice and the swaying hips.

No education, no money, only men. Her beauty was her currency. Always had been. No one talked about when the bank ran dry as it inevitable would...

...As the clouds gathered over head and the morning turned dark, she realised London in wartime had been the star of that fateful show. Love and sex came fast and danced with the nearness of death and My God did it make life golden.

Alys — the young girl (cute, but unconvincing - her behavior did not correspond with her age) - who had to endure an unknown father and a mother devoid of mother's instinct.

The first half of the book was intriguing, riveting, and just super wonderful.

But then I just lost interest with the drawn-out rhopography of life in Florence and London, filled with long lectures on art history and artists, interrupted by a slow-moving timeline to nowhere. Here and there a monologue on politics.

The last chapter well... the most boring of them all. First of all, we started out in 1944 and slowly moved through to 1971-1974, and suddenly we're thrown back to 1910. Heaven have mercy. I just lost it. Evelyn was not my favorite character. Not because she was bad, but because there were others who were just more colorful and contributed more to the tale. None of the characters were really baddies. By the time her back story was introduced just before the ending, she was irrelevant.

The characters represented a cornucopia of social issues: single mothers, mothers with mother's instinct, mother's without mother's instinct; single woman with mother's instinct; lesbians.

The exciting male characters were mostly single, or gay, or brute vox populi of the deplorables, and ugh, the epitome of red-meat masculinity. By the grace of all the planets, one of them became an anti-hero and, at last, most lovable. Well, he stopped eating meat, now you've got to love him.

Marriage was clearly the wrecking ball of true happiness.

I'm not convinced that the book was either story- or character driven. It was issue-driven, hence the multitude of characters to introduce as many issues as possible into the tale.

Evelyn was the carrier of the real message in the plot: She represented women: Single women, gay women, were sophisticated, the noble stars. Married women were all beyond par - abused, lost. Religious women were martyrs in a world created for men, by men.

However, I appreciated the vast array of personalities and the immense effort of the author to make this an informative experience. It just felt everything was overstaying the welcome, sort of. And too familiar. A lot of word dumping. Too much for me.

The author undoubtedly has a talent to make words sing. This was alphabet music. She covered several decades of European renaissance in her descriptions of places and people. Her characters were likable and lovable and often hilariously funny. Cressy's dialogue with prunus serrulata(Japanese Cherry blossom tree) tugged at my heartstrings. His devotion to Claude,the philosophical parrot, guaranteed entertainment. The terrible, but comical incident with Davy; Col's infatuation with his wailing 1930s 's, right old boneshaker ambulance, which promised to be a charisma lobotomy, said Peg; and a few other incidents brought much joy and laughter about.

It's a feel good book, no doubt. I just got worn out. Sorry.

Oh, my biggest gripe: ABSENCE OF QUOTATION MARKS -1 star.
The blunt ending bored me to death - 1 star.
Three stars it will be.

OVERALL not a bad read at all. JUST BE PATIENT! Mine gave up.
Profile Image for Andrea.
769 reviews30 followers
November 1, 2022
Simply magnificent! This book is almost certain to be my best read of 2021 and is a rare addition to my favourites shelf. It is a love letter to Italy, to Florence in particular, to art and to E.M. Forster. Above all, it is a life-affirming tribute to made families, or families of choice.

Stretching over 4 decades - from the 40s to the 70s - Still Life covers a lot of historical events, some of which are key to the plot, including the Great Flood of Florence in 1966 which inspired Winman to write it. But more than anything, Still Life is all about the characters. At its centre are Ulysses Temper and Evelyn Skinner. They meet in Tuscany towards the end of WWII, as the allies are about to liberate Florence. Ulysses is a young Private in the British Army, while Evelyn is already in her golden years, a well-respected art historian, there to help identify and recover lost or hidden art treasures. Their encounter, while brief, is profound and mutually impactful. If Ulysses and Evelyn are the soul of the story, then Cressy is the heart. Already 'Old Cress' at war's end, he is the wise, kind and generous moral anchor of the East London village where Ulysses grew up and to which he returns after demobilisation. There are a number of other key characters, all lovingly fleshed-out, who populate the story and who continually reappear over the decades, but special mention must go to Claude, the blue Amazonian parrot, who becomes part of the family. He may be from South America, but having spent years living in the local pub, he can speak English. In context (at times) no less! Usually I would consider that sort of thing to be a bit corny, and maybe even annoying like a joke that wears thin, but here Claude provides some light relief and acts as a circuit breaker when the emotion is starting to overwhelm.

Something I thought about a lot, especially in the second half of the book, was the dramatic tension. Sure, there was some provided by the historical events, particularly the two I referred to above. But when a story relies so much on characterisation, where does it come from? Winman has done a superb job in creating tension in two ways. Firstly, there is the almost sliding-doors level of tension that comes from watching Ulysses and Evelyn dancing around each others' lives for literally years. At times it had me groaning for them! When will they finally meet again???

And they couldn’t believe how so many roads had either led to him or led to her. And for Evelyn, there was equal sadness as there was delight at hearing how close they’d been to one another, how touchable, if only – the preciousness of time, you see.

The second thing is to do with the age of Evelyn and Cressy. Both integral to the story and already seniors at the beginning, we grow to love them and can't imagine life without them, but realistically they are old... As events unfolded, I found myself figuratively sweating for them to stay safe. No spoilers here.

As a side-note, I will point out that I hadn't read A Room with a View, but I did pick it up as a kind of companion audio-read in the middle of Still Life. In my view, you don't need to be familiar with it to enjoy Still Life. But my reading of Still Life has definitely enhanced my enjoyment of Forster's book, as I recognised Winman's frequent nods and winks.

I loved everything about Still Life, and despite its length (which I was glad of) I was already thinking about turning back to the start to begin again, even before I'd finished. Definitely one to re-read and savour.

With thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins Australia for an eARC to read and review. Note that as this was an advance copy, the quote above may have changed at publication.

Profile Image for Lisa.
1,462 reviews560 followers
December 13, 2021
A feast of a book bursting with friendships, art, food and beauty. It took me about 100 pages to get into it and I could have done without the last 50 pages - but otherwise a lovely book to curl up with and forget the world outside. How I wished it was possible to hop on a plane and join this group in their pensione!
Profile Image for Lorna.
677 reviews366 followers
May 21, 2023
Still Life was a truly beautiful book by Sarah Winman with an endearing and quirky ensemble of characters that I came to treasure and love over the course of this book as it begins in 1944 and skips through time in periods of years concluding in 1979 immersing one in Italy, particularly beautiful Florence - Firenze! Amore mio! This is a beautiful story creating a rich tapestry of people all brought together by art and love and war and a flood showing us all of the myriad forms that can make up a family. This was a lovely book and will definitely be one of my favorites for this year.

But at the crux of this beautiful story is a young British soldier, Ulysses Temper, that we meet during the war in 1944 while he is in the Tuscan hills as the Allied troops are waiting to enter Florence and his chance meeting with art historian Evelyn Skinner, sixty-something years old, and wanting to liaise with Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Officers to salvage paintings from the ruins. It is in the wine cellar in the ruins of a Tuscan villa where Private Temper and Captain Darnley and Evelyn Skinner share bottles of wine, 1902 Carruades de Lafite, and intimate conversation as bombs explode overhead discussing that the human heart is capable of both grace and fury. It is during these hours of this very special evening that a fierce connection or one of kindred spirits is forged between Evelyn and Ulysses that will last a lifetime. In Tuscany Evelyn Skinner relives her memories of her 21st birthday and her meeting EM Forster in a pensione in Florence where she had a lovely room with a view of the Arno.

"Beautiful art opens our eyes to the beauty of the world, Ulysses. It repositions our sight and judgement. Captures forever that which is fleeting. A meager stain in the corridors of history, that's all we are. A little mark of scuff. One hundred and fifty years ago Napoleon breathed the same air as we do now. The batallion of time marches on. Art versus humanity is not the question, Ulysses. One doesn't exist without the other. Art is the antidote. Is that enough to make it important? Well yes, I think it is."

"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."

"So, time heals. Mostly. Sometimes carelessly. And in unspecting moments, the pain catches and reminds on of all that's been missing. The fulcrum of what might have been. But then it passes. Winter moves into spring and swallows return. The proximity of new skin returns to the sheets. Beauty does what is required. Jobs fulfill and conversations inspire. Loneliness becomes a mere Sunday. Scattered clothes. Empty bowls. Rotting fruit. Passing time. But still life in all its beauty and complexity."

While this is the first book that I have read by Sarah Winman, it certainly will not be the last. This book is a treasure and one that I will certainly read again. Firenze! Amore mio!
Profile Image for Faith.
1,843 reviews516 followers
November 11, 2021
Stretching from 1944 to 1979, this story traces the charming relationships among a group of friends who are close enough to have formed a devoted and supportive family. The central character is Ulysses Temper, a young British soldier who we first meet in Florence, Italy during WWII. Ulysses, his Captain and 64 year old art historian (and possible spy) Evelyn Skinner spend a memorable evening looking at art, drinking wine and escaping bombs. “When the bombs fell overhead, and he held my hand and shouted against the tumult, not today, Evelyn! It’s not going to be us today. His face was compelling, Dotty. I was young again. I felt young again. I will be forever grateful.” The link between Ulysses and Evelyn lasts for decades.

The book explores the mutability and constancy of love, ambivalent and devoted parenting and the beauty of (and gender biases in) art. The characters are fully fleshed out, including a really delightful talking parrot. Most of the book is set in Florence, and I enjoyed the descriptions of the city. The writing is beautiful, just like it was in the author’s previous book “Tin Man”. Occasionally, it felt like the author was skipping through events too quickly. I suppose that is inevitable when you are trying to cover such a long period. The description of a flood and its aftermath in Florence was very detailed though, and I appreciated that. I listened to the audiobook narrated by the author and she did an excellent job with the narration. 4.5 stars

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.
Profile Image for Tania.
1,198 reviews269 followers
May 7, 2023
Definitely my favorite book of 2021.

This charming, compassionate, clever story transported me to Florence Italy with a cast of characters that I adored, especially Ulysses and Cressy. This is not a plot driven novel, but more of a look at the moments (and people) in time that shapes us. What I loved most about Still Life, is the original, witty and fast-paced dialogue and the author, who narrated the audible book, does such a stellar job with her performance, that I was either guffawing or suppressing a sob throughout most of the book. This joyous, intelligent, beautifully written novel is an ode to friendship, beauty, art, food and Florence and I can't recommend it highly enough.
Profile Image for Kirsty.
2,689 reviews177 followers
May 5, 2021
Having very much enjoyed Sarah Winman's first three novels, I never thought I'd give up on any of her later efforts. However, Still Life did absolutely nothing for me. The beginning, with its Italian setting and quirky characters, was promising, but I became so bored when the story moved to London. I made it a quarter of the way through before giving up, as I had seen that a couple of other reviewers felt the same as me, and the story did not improve for them.
Profile Image for Julie.
Author 6 books1,761 followers
April 19, 2022
This is the second Sarah Winman novel that has left me weeping as I turned the final pages. It is everything, and it is exquisite.

Art historian Evelyn Skinner, a London blue blood of a certain age, and solider Ulysses Temper, a Cockney East Ender barely in his twenties, meet in Florence, Italy in 1944. Their encounter is brief but singular: they are sheltered together in a wine cellar during a bombing raid and discover several priceless works of Italian art hidden with them. The discovery is a bond that carries them from the end of World War II through the end of the 1970's, the scope of this epic, gorgeous book.

Ulysses returns to London after the war's end, to a broken city and a wife who has fallen in love with an American soldier. Peg, irresistibly beautiful, maddeningly irreverent, adores Temps, as he is known to his friends, but never intended to marry him; their union was the result of a night of gin and Temps's certainty he wouldn't make it through the war alive- his military benefits had to go to someone. They divorce, but the American soldier abandons Peg anyway, leaving her pregnant and forever jaded.

For a few years, Temps settles into life in the East End and we fall in love with his motley crew of friends: the owner of the shabby The Stoat and Parot pub, Col, forever in gastric distress and working his way through an alphabet of women, old man Cressy, a shorts-wearing savant who communes with a Japanese cherry tree planted incongruously on the shores of the Thames, Pete, a gangly piano player with dreams of stardom, and Claude, the giant blue parrot who lords over Col's pub, along with a raggedy stuffed stoat (hence its name). Then there is Alys, Peg's daughter who resembles, heartbreakingly, the American soldier Peg longs for.

This time spent in London, post-war through the early 60s, is difficult to describe. It's very sober quotidianess — a city and its people rebuilding themselves — is the vehicle for revealing the heart and spirit of Winman's characters. The pages flow easily from one tender or hilarious conversation and caper to the next as Winman cements the bond of this makeshift family, showing their enduring commitment to each other. Temps has taken over his father's globe-making business, an unusual trade, but one which Temps is uniquely suited to master. His particular skill in painstakingly mapping out and connecting worlds, his compassion for lost souls, and his longing for places not yet seen render his created Earths true works of art.

Then suddenly, their rain-and-rubble life in London is upended: Temps has inherited a set of apartments in central Florence, bequeathed by a Florentine whose life he'd saved all those years before. Temps takes this chance and moves with Cressy and Alys, who is better off with her adopted dad than her unstable mother, to Italy. And the sun breaks out, casting a golden radiance over the story that is about everything that matters: love, family, art, sex, and finding a purpose in life.

Eventually, everyone in the East End makes their way to Florence, frequently or forever, and despite the inevitable hiccups of life — we witness the 1966 Arno river flood that devastated Florence, Alys's teenage humiliation as she attempts love, and her mother's tragic resignation to a loveless marriage — this collection of family and friends centers their lives around each other and their joyous pursuit of pleasure, La Dolce Vita, indeed. The story circles back to Evelyn Skinner, who has hovered slightly offstage but is never gone, until it is she who becomes its central star.

How to convey writing that is so suffused with warmth and wit, color and energy? Themes that are enormous in their strokes and yet intimate in detail? Landscapes that belong to a particular moment yet are timeless in their effect? Still Life is anything but still - it dances and sings, weeps and trills with delight. This is as lovely a novel as I can hope to read, one that offers both hope and longing during a time when they seem too dear to hold onto.

Surely one of my top reads of the year. Brilliant.
Profile Image for Bianca.
1,042 reviews902 followers
July 4, 2021

Oh, my heart is full.

Still Life is a sprawling novel that begins in 1944 in Italy and goes on for decades.
This novel had so many things I love - first, some wonderfully memorable characters: Ulysses Temper - a British young man, whom we first meet during his stint in Italy during WWII. While there, he met the effusive and erudite sexagenarian, Evelyn Skinner, an art historian, a unique person. Their short meeting left an impression on each other.
Ulysses's wife and first love is Peg - a beautiful woman, independent and stubborn. Their relationship is unusual. They live in a room above a pub where they work.
Peg's "dalliance" with another man results in a baby girl. Ulysses adores her as if she were his biological daughter. He's a better parent than Peggy could ever be. The pub is filled with interesting characters - Col, the publican, Pete, an accomplished pianist struggling to make it, Cres, a father figure to Ulysses. To make things even more interesting, there's an extraordinary blue parrot named Claude. Claude is quite the character and a philosopher of sorts.

Ulysses' good deed, performed when in Italy during the war, sees him as the owner of a beautiful apartment in Florence. So, together with Peg's daughter Alys, Cress, and Claude the parrot, they make their way to their new life. A new location, a new business, a new language, new friends, - a life filled with light, love, good food, and the simple joys of life - the three ex-pats and their bird flourish.

The book is also filled with art and art appreciation; traveling and art as means to opening one's mind and heart.

This is not a perfect novel. Some might grumble about the overly precocious child, not to mention the surreal parrot. The book takes a little while to get going, it picks up the pace and becomes much more interesting once Ulysses and Co moved to Florence.

Despite its imperfections, Still Life is full of heart; there are some extraordinarily beautiful paragraphs, there's tenderness, quirkiness, memorable characters, chance encounters, beautiful descriptions, and so much more.

Since I can't travel to Italy or anywhere else really, I shall have to indulge in some of Fellini's movies that I haven't watched in a long time. I've been listening on repeat to this Italian rock band, so why not watch some Italian classic movies that were mentioned in the novel - La Dolce Vita, The Bicycle Thief, an amazing movie.

My literary love affair with Sarah Winman's writing continues. May it continue to grow.

I've received this novel via Netgalley, in exchange for my honest review.
Profile Image for Daniel Shindler.
254 reviews73 followers
November 23, 2021
“ Still Life” is a novel that describes little intimacies and connections which eventually intertwine and form a portrait of lives well lived. This artfully constructed work of historical fiction unfolds small stories of ordinary people. Events take place over a span of thirty five years and four decades as we follow the challenges and complexities confronting an array characters as they go about their daily lives.

Private Ulysses Temper is a soldier in the British Army. In 1944, during the waning years of World War Two, he is on the road to Tuscany. He has a chance encounter with Evelyn Skinner, a sixty four year old art historian who has come to help rescue art works that have been abandoned by the retreating German forces. During their time together, Evelyn imparts her love of art and of the city of Florence to the twenty four year old Ulysses. After their meeting, their life paths diverge. Evelyn returns to London to continue a teaching career.Ulysses resumes his life working in an East End London pub.Although the two do not meet again for many years, the memory of their short time together lingers for both of them.

Once back in London, Ulysses begins reassembling his life in the midst of the detritus of post war London.He is sorting out his relationship with his ex wife Peg, who has a child, Alys, from a different man. He also reestablishes his bond with Cress, an elderly mentor who serves as a father figure. Through a serendipitous plot device worthy of Charles Dickens, Ulysses receives an inheritance that enables him to relocate to Florence, taking both Alys and Cress with him.Once in Italy, this improvised family makes new friends while continuing their bonds with those left behind in London, all the while navigating the events that unfold in the ensuing decades.

This novel is defined more by images and themes than by plot development. Recurring themes run throughout the work.The first is the power of art and beauty as a transformative agent in ordinary lives.The author suggests that art is accessible to all people.”Still Life” is filled with images and references to the great paintings and artists that have created a cultural legacy. The art and architecture of Florence seep into Ulysses’ life, enriching his sensibilities and existence. Another prevalent theme is that of an expanded sense of family.The gradually deepening bonds that tie Ulysses to his “ adopted family” remind us that a network of friends can meld into a unit that is loyal and enduring, providing a continuity and shared set of memories that are as strong as blood ties.

I read this novel as a chronicle of a spiritual journey undertaken by disparate people seeking a safe emotional haven as they move through their life cycles.Naming the central character Ulysses resonated with me.Ulysses is a young man who has gone to war, returned from conflict and has embarked on a lifelong voyage of self discovery and awareness. I conceptualized his physical and spiritual wanderings as a modern day Odyssey. There is much to absorb in this novel.Readers who let the images and beauty wash over them will come away refreshed and enriched.
Profile Image for Eric Anderson.
665 reviews3,228 followers
June 24, 2021
I find something very moving about stories of inter-generational friendships. Novels such as “Autumn” by Ali Smith and “The Offing” by Benjamin Myers describe profound connections between individuals who are at very different stages of life but establish a rapport that obliterates traditional social divides based on age, gender or sexuality. Sarah Winman has explored such a relationship before in her novel “A Year of Marvellous Ways” where an eccentric ninety-year-old woman and a soldier who just returned from fighting in France form an unlikely bond. In her new novel “Still Life” a similar dynamic is established at the beginning of the story when Evelyn Skinner, a 60-something art historian and Ulysses Temper, a young British soldier meet in Tuscany during wartime. This fleeting but profound encounter sticks with them both over the years. When he returns to England Ulysses discovers his early love affair and marriage to free-spirited Peg has inalterably changed during the time he's been away at war. Meanwhile, Evelyn fights for the preservation of art while musing upon the early years of her life when she fell in love with Florence and a woman who taught her more than Italian. We follow their lives over the decades from the mid-40s to the late 70s as their lives separately develop and society changes.

While I found the interactions between Ulysses and Evelyn (and, later on, between Peg's daughter Alys and Evelyn) touching, I felt somewhat ambivalent about the way the narrative keeps them separated and then draws them together again through coincidence. There was something artificial and controlled about this device which makes a game of how they come close to encountering each other on numerous occasions before finally reuniting. Similarly, there's a whimsical nature to Winman's style of characterisation which kept me at a bit of a distance from many of the personalities in this story and meant I never fully believed in them. This was especially true when it came to a blue-feathered parrot named Claude who likes to quote Shakespeare and performs near-fantastical feats. I wanted to love them yet never found myself completely falling for them. This was dismaying because I love to read about unconventional personalities in historical novels which bring colour to a history which too often feels black and white. People who break social boundaries and live their own truth aren't often memorialised so I appreciate how stories like this try to forge connections across time.

Read my full review of Still Life by Sarah Winman on LonesomeReader
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