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Still Life by Sarah Winman
Historical fiction

Still Life

by Sarah Winman

Excellent choice

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Quick take

As the end of WWII nears, an art historian (and maybe spy) forges a rare and impactful friendship with a young soldier.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_400

    400+ pages

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_SlowRead

    Slow build

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_International

    International

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_NoQuotationMarks

    No quotation marks

Synopsis

It’s 1944 and in the ruined wine cellar of a Tuscan villa, as the Allied troops advance and bombs fall around them, two strangers meet and share an extraordinary evening together.

Ulysses Temper is a young British solider and one-time globe-maker, Evelyn Skinner is a sexagenarian art historian and possible spy. She has come to Italy to salvage paintings from the ruins and relive her memories of the time she encountered EM Forster and had her heart stolen by an Italian maid in a particular Florentine room with a view.

These two unlikely people find kindred spirits in each other, and Evelyn’s talk of truth and beauty plants a seed in Ulysses mind that will shape the trajectory of his life—and of those who love him—for the next four decades.

Moving from the Tuscan Hills, to the smog of the East End and the piazzas of Florence, Still Life is a sweeping, mischievous, richly-peopled novel about beauty, love, family, and fate.

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Free sample

Get an early look from the first pages of Still Life.
Still Life

Man as the Measure of All Things

1944

Somewhere in the Tuscan hills, two English spinsters, Evelyn Skinner and a Margaret someone, were eating a late lunch on the terrace of a modest albergo. It was the second of August. A beautiful summer’s day, if only you could forget there was a war on. One sat in shade, the other in light, due to the angle of the sun and the vine-?­strewn trellis overhead. They were served a reduced menu but celebrated the Allied advance with large glasses of Chianti. Overhead, a low-?­flying bomber cast them momentarily in shadow. They picked up their binoculars and studied the markings. Ours, they said, and waved.

This rabbit’s delicious, said Evelyn, and she caught the eye of the proprietor, who was smoking by the doorway. She said, Coniglio buonissimo, signore!

The signore put his cigarette in his mouth and raised his arm—part salute, part wave, one couldn’t be sure.

Do you think he’s a Fascist? said Margaret quietly.

No, I don’t think so, said Evelyn. Although Italians are quite indecisive politically. Always have been.

I heard they’re shooting them now, the Fascists.

Everyone’s shooting everyone, said Evelyn.

A shell screamed to their right and exploded on a distant hill, uprooting a cluster of small cypress trees.

One of theirs, said Margaret, and she held on to the table to protect her camera and wineglass from the shock waves.

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Why I love it

Still Life by Sarah Winman may span forty years, but each moment, character, location, meal, and glass of wine (or grappa) combine to deliver a richly crafted emotional tale that will stay with you long after you read the novel’s last words.

It’s 1944 in the Tuscan hills of Italy, where we first meet Evelyn Skinner, 64, with whom I immediately fell in love. The art historian is funny, clever, irreverent, quirky, and sarcastic—and let’s not leave out, surprisingly level-headed. When a character jumps off the page like this you know you’re in for a ride. But early in the novel, Evelyn has a chance meeting with 24-year-old Ulysses Temper, a globe-maker and soldier, during a bombing raid. Two ships in the night, so to speak, have a long chat and then depart, going their separate ways, into their separate lives—but the encounter leaves a mark.

Over the next forty years, we meet unforgettable characters, fall in love with a pub, and discover great food and art. This novel is the kind of historical fiction I love to read—a thoroughly researched and informative story that explores eternal themes like friendship, love, and family. You will relish getting to know Winman’s lush characters and reading her masterful prose, descriptions, and dialogue. Still Life is a must-read.

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Member ratings (2,050)

  • Rheanna P.

    Springfield, MO

    This is such a great book. It’s a book about life and the things that make us who we are. There isn’t a mystery or anything like that. It’s the art of living and the everyday things that make us us.

  • Ashleigh M.

    Wilmington, DE

    This book is a beautiful love letter to the city of Florence, & one of my favorite BOTM books of all time. A classic which I’ll definitely be rereading down the line. I’d give it six stars if I could!

  • Kristin T.

    Murrysville, PA

    This book I truly loved. When I finished it, I wanted to go back to the beginning and read it again. This is a book my grandchildren will read as a classic. So well written, such vibrant characters.

  • Sarah G.

    Atlanta, GA

    Still Life was beautifully written, and surprised me by making me laugh out loud often. It’s a slow read, and the lack of quotation marks takes getting used to. But it is a book that will stay with me

  • Candy R.

    Idaho Falls , ID

    Loved the book. Absolutely loved it. The characters were beautiful. Each of them unique, quirky, and breathtakingly beautiful. I especially enjoyed Winman’s vivid descriptions of the Italian scenery.

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