skip to Main Content

Book review: Still Life by Sarah Winman

I started Sarah Winman’s Still Life with extremely high expectations after hearing from friends and social media that it was a must-read.

I had also heard that it was set in Italy and having a deep love of the country, having lived for a short time in Italy and travelled there quite a few times, I thought that I would love it.

However, I didn’t, exactly.

Still Life opens in Italy during World War II as two soldiers meet an older woman who is trying to save the art that had been hidden from Nazi forces.

The three share a memorable night of wine and art before going their separate ways.

It then follows the story of Ulysses Temper, the soldier who returns to the UK and a colourful cast of characters who he calls his friends, and ex-wife.

Some of the characters move to Florence after Temper finds he has been left an apartment in the will of a man whose life he had saved while he was a soldier.

From there, the book is a love story to Florence and its art.

While I’m all for both Italy and art, I found the book to be a bit too sentimental. Ulysses was perfect in his kindness, his ex-wife was perfect in her beauty, the older woman was perfect in her glamour and their friend Cress was perfect in his wisdom.

It was all a bit … perfect.

I’ve got something against characters that are one-dimensionally good. Perhaps I am cynical but I believe there is good and bad in everyone and I prefer to see that reflected in the books I read.

Similarly, while Florence is extraordinarily beautiful, it is not without its political and social problems, none which reared their heads in Still Life.

I also felt the book was a little bit slow in parts, which is nice if you’re looking for a relaxing read that mainly focused on beauty and goodness, but for me it was a bit too ponderous. It might be a book for many, but it wasn’t really for me.

This Post Has 11 Comments
  1. Still Life was pretentious twaddle. I don’t understand all the positive reviews. It is cliche ridden and predictable and the characters are all unbelievable. The structure is rambling and repetitive and I ended up skimming and then abandoning it. Life is too short to read third rate novels.

    1. I totally agree. I’m halfway through and will finish it, but it’s very poor. There is little character development which means relationships are not believable. This is not an important book.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. Ploughed through this book and finished it mainly because it was our book club choice and thought it was …boring, cringy and way tooo long. The characters as you said were too good to be true, there was no conflict and the the hint was in the title…Still Life.

  3. Absolutely agree. I am an avid reader but I found this book boring and an excuse for the author to ‘show off’ her knowledge of art, poetry and Florence. I couldn’t connect with any of the characters. The last section on Evelyn was the final straw and I skimmed the rest of the book to the end. Very disappointing.

  4. Thank goodness! I thought it was just me. How convenient that the characters all held ‘modern’ sensibilities that placed them all on what is now considered to be the right side of history. How convenient that Ulysses loved Alys as if she were his own, how convenient that Cressy won big and so on. I bought this novel because it was voted the best novel of 2021 by Dymocks (Australia’s biggest book-seller), but all I can say is that it was formulaic, written to appeal to book club readers and deliberately and shamelessly trading on the cultural heritage of Italy and the beauty of Florence. The descriptions of 1950s Brits cooking traditional Italian fare with all the authenticity of Nonnas was nauseating and frankly, unbelievable. There was also a disrespect towards Catholic Italy that was disappointing and unnecessary, and a suggestion – perhaps I’m wrong – that communism was a viable alternative. Overall, this was a disappointing read.

  5. Concur that this was a self-congratulatory, pseudo-intellectual book filled with trite observations and sentiments. How clever is Alys to recognise the genius of Fellini from the get-go. How nice that in spite of the era, every one is tolerant of everyone else in spite of their sexual preferences (even in Evelyn’s generation, both her father and aunt are completely understanding! Ain’t that swell!).
    How interesting that it was actually Cress the uneducated polymath who coined the term petrichor in 1952, though first report of it in published literature was not till 1964. So much for academic rigour. Truly nauseating and poorly written novel.

  6. I agree with the foregoing comments. This was pretentious rubbish and devoid of any character development. It was clever, though, of Sarah Winman to name her principal character Ulysses for he was, like Odysseus, “a man of many devices”. Despite that, life is too short to read a novel like Still Life when you can read Henry James.

    Roger Turner

    NB I had already posted but then noticed an egregious typo so please disregard my first transmission.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Receive our latest posts

Your information will never be shared with any third parties.
Back To Top
×Close search