Still Life

by Sarah Winman

Hardcover, 2021

Call number




G.P. Putnam's Sons (2021), 464 pages


Fiction. Literature. Historical Fiction. HTML:A Good Morning America Book Club Pick   A Veranda Magazine Book Club Pick A captivating, bighearted, richly tapestried story of people brought together by love, war, art, flood, and the ghost of E. M. Forster, by the celebrated author of Tin Man. Tuscany, 1944: As Allied troops advance and bombs fall around deserted villages, a young English soldier, Ulysses Temper, finds himself in the wine cellar of a deserted 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 each other, Ulysses and Evelyn find a kindred spirit amidst 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 Ulysses returns home to London, reimmersing himself in his crew at The Stoat and Parot�a motley mix of pub crawlers and eccentrics�he 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 beautiful prose, extraordinary tenderness, and bursts of humor and light, Still Life is a sweeping portrait of unforgettable individuals who come together to make a family, and a deeply drawn celebration of beauty and love in all its forms. .… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member GRgenius
This is a story that takes place over a lifetime, and while the situations and circumstances that transpire are important, memorable, and achingly beautiful even in their tragic moments, it’s truly the lives of the characters themselves that make it so moving.

Ulysses was a soul to remember. He
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went into the war a boy and came out a changed man, but in all the right ways. He cared deeply, still saw the hope in humanity, reached out a helping hand to those in need with no thought as to how it would be repaid, and just generally had a heart the size of the globes he eventually creates.

Alys we get to know and love as small child through tumultuous teen years and into her young adulthood. She had a rough start in life and was given every reason to feel ultimately rejected, but I truly believed what saved her at every turn...was love. She had an old soul, and understood so much more than someone her age would normally, but the love that surrounded her, no matter how nontraditionally woven, was her safety net. It was what she felt deep down and knew even in those questioning days that she could fall back on without glancing back to be sure of its presence.

Cress was oddly enough, another heart at the center point of this tale. You don't expect it, in fact, he comes off as rather unusual and eccentric, with no particular background to speak of, but experience in life has a lot to say for itself. He reminds us that we all have roots, and the world is constantly trying to show us that fact, while telling us in its own subtle ways, which blow of the wind to follow; if only we'd LISTEN.

Evelyn we meet once upon a war mission, but she is such a lady of stature, such a woman of heart, such a force for the art world that even though there are bombs flying through the air, she, Ulysses, and the Captain are able to make a moment that will live on in time. Their story's part ways for many years, and we get to know them apart in their own worlds as time ticks by, but when the moment is finally right, their reunion is that much more precious, that much more appreciated, and cherished.

Claude was the mouthy parrot that never said die. He lived quite an adventurous life, and accomplished well more than any parrot I've ever known, including the ability to understand random human conversations, and dole out advice befitting the situation. Peg was the girl that got away, and yet she and Ulysses had their moment...scattered through time, but there nonetheless. It was obvious she trusted him with her soul, but her heart was always on the tear for something bigger, better, out there in the great wide world...which makes the lessons she learns inadvertently along the way, that much more heartbreaking. Col could've just been the local bar owner, but he was such a big presence, along with his gentle souled daughter, Ginny. He was there when they needed him, and despite his easily raised temper, and unusual mode of transportation, he could always be counted on.

In the end, this is a story very fitting its title...still life as observed in art, but also in the sense of even after everything happens, still life unfolds. I know I pretty much wrote a detailed "who's who" for the story (more is actually on my site review!), but there are still so many people you have to meet, so much more to learn about the ones I've mentioned, I promised I've overshared nothing. If you're looking for a story that checks all the boxes, makes you think, laugh, love, and cry over a silly old bird that wasn't quite so silly, don't imitate a still life portrait; add this title to your wish list today!

**ecopy received for review, but I bought one for myself too; opinions are my own
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LibraryThing member rayski
I real feel good read. It's a story about friendships, the dependencies of each of us on our friends (in a positive way). Every character was thoroughly developed, truly unique and each a favorite in their own way. Cressy the elderly oracular, prophetic and a romantic; Claude the parrot who could
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see and say what the others didn't; Evelyn Skinner an art scholar and feminist; Dotty the famous artist with a comic side; Peggy the beautiful but flawed character, Col the salty pub owner; Ulysses the glue who keeps everyone together and Alys the daughter of Peggy who is raised by all of these characters. Finally, Firenze the city that most of the story wraps around. Having visited Florence myself about a dozen years ago, the book made me feel like I was right back there. Sarah Winman did an excellent job of describing the piazzas, Duomo, bridges and the Arno. Really enjoyed this will search other titles by Winman real soon.
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LibraryThing member Amzzz
The story of so many people and so many things: life, love, war, art and friendship.
LibraryThing member lauralkeet
Towards the end of World War II, British soldier Ulysses Templar has a chance encounter with Evelyn Skinner somewhere near Florence, Italy. Evelyn is several years older than Ulysses, and theirs is not a romantic liaison, but in one evening Evelyn transforms Ulysses’ world view. At the end of the
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war, Ulysses settles back home to London, reconnecting with a cast of characters in his neighborhood including Peg, a woman he married in haste before he left. Many years later, a chance event from Ulysses’ past becomes the impetus for his return to Italy, and from there the novel grows into a tale of love and community that spans generations.

Ulysses is surrounded by a strong supporting cast from both London and Florence. Historic events pertaining to both art and Florence figure prominently. The Italian setting is evocative; I was constantly imagining myself sipping espresso in a sunny Italian piazza. There are references -- both subtle and overt -- which readers of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View will appreciate. And yet something about the sprawling nature of this novel left me wanting … but just a little bit. It’s a great read.
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LibraryThing member msf59
“A rusty pub sign swinging in December’s throaty wheeze, and a traumatised parrot too far from home. This was his world now. Somewhere between an atom and a star was his.”

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

Northern Italy, 1944, the war rages on. A young English soldier, Uylsses Temper is on assignment there and meets Evelyn Skinner, a middle aged art historian. They bond immediately. Once the war is over, this chance encounter stays lodged in Ulys soul. He returns to London and takes up residence in The Stoat and Parrot, with it’s colorful collection of misfits and dreamers. These are his people and he loves each one deeply but cannot quite shake his experiences in Italy.
This beautifully written novel, spans several decades. Many of these wonderful characters will stay with me for a long time. The English author, E.M. Forster also plays a part in the narrative. One of my top reads of 2021.
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LibraryThing member ablachly
A truly beautiful story of small moments, art, poetry, unexpected found family, a large outspoken parrot, and the backdrop of picturesque Florence.
LibraryThing member bookwyrmm
A joyous work of historical fiction that expertly portrays all the ups and downs life has to offer.
LibraryThing member lesleynicol
Sorry, but this book disappointed me. I loved the story of Ulysses and his journey back to Florence, but I could not understand why he got himself tangled-up with so many odd people. I did not like these characters, especially the "worthless" Peg. He could have done so much better with his life.
LibraryThing member hemlokgang
Why? Why do author's feel compelled to tell non-linear stories? It has become ubiquitous. Once in a while it works well. Unfortunately, in this book it seems pointless. Winman's prose is lovely. The section about the historic 1966 flood in Florence was gripping. The relationship between Evelyn &
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Ulysses and their circle of friends was enjoyable. Please just leave out the gimmicky structure.
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LibraryThing member aadyer
In many ways, a narrative on many levels, with this being regarded as a love story (albeit it convoluted), a family saga, a tale of friendship, a tale of Florence, a reflection on the outcomes of war, a study of the consequences of actions, the value of emotional attachment, and the memories and
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adherence that a time and place can have on memories. Valuable, at times frustrating, and perhaps, if I was to be critical, it would be to say there isn’t enough resolution.
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LibraryThing member PriscillaM
There were elements of this book I really loved. Some of the characters were beautifully portrayed. Who could not love Ulysses and Cress, Pete and of course Claude the parrot. Alys's story, so loved, but also rejected and Peg who searched for love in the wrong places. I did not however warm to
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Evelyn who seemed very egocentric. The story however was well written and was an interesting journey through the decades following the second World War with some interesting insights into womens' roles over the time. A good read.
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LibraryThing member nancyadair
I love these characters so much! While reading I was totally transported into their world and I dreamt of their community at night. They gave me such joy. So few books offer up a community of compassion and mutual support. The banter between these characters is delightful. I was drawn into their
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fun and laughed out loud. Their lives have heartbreak and grief, they struggle but struggle together in love. And they tell each other “I love you,” for these friends have cobbled together a family. An irregular family, for sure.

There is the handsome British soldier Ulysses and his wife Peg. They grew up together, and married while on a bender. They love each other, are attracted to each other, but not meant for each other. Peg fell in love with an American soldier while her husband was away and bore a love child, Alys, who looks just like her dad but has her mother’s moxy. Peg can’t forget Eddie and when Ulysses returns home, she asks for a divorce. She waits for her soldier to return to her. Ulysses becomes attached to Alys as if she were his own.

Col and Cressy own the tavern where Peg works and sometimes singing with the pianist Pete. A blue fronted Amazonian parrot named Claude lives in the bar, spouting out Shakespeare with impeccable timing. Col is a single parent with a special needs daughter. The men offer Ulysses a job.

At the end of the war, Ulysses was in Florence with fellow soldier and art historian Captain Darnley, the best man he ever knew, looking to reclaim art treasures. The older art historian Evelyn Skinner arrived to help. She first visited Florence when she was twenty, and in this city had discovered love in all it’s glory and pain. Their paths cross for just a moment in time, but they leave impressions that last lifetimes.

Ulysses becomes a hero when he saves the life of a man preparing to jump from a building. Arturo is grateful and, unknown to Ulysses, wills his savior his entire estate.

Upon Arturo’s death, Ulysses returns to Florence to claim his legacy. Peg asks him to take Alys with him, as he is the better ‘parent’. At the last moment, Cress joins them, with the parrot secured in a false bottomed suitcase. Cress has won a fortune on a lucky bet. (Lucky bets change fortunes of numerous characters!) The three become an unusual family.

Ulysses makes a deep friendship with Massimo, who has handled the estate. They have two floors, and decide to turn one floor into a pensione. The ex-pats are periodically joined by Pete, Peg, and Col. The heartbroken Peg becomes involved with a wealthy man who treats her badly. Alys blossoms although her relationship with her mother is always strained and distant.

Over the years, Ulysses and Evelyn think of each other and even pass each other on the street. After a horrific flood, people come from all over to help clean up and rescue art works and books. One is Evelyn’s student and he becomes friends with Alys.

Florence is beautifully described, the architecture and landscape, the people, and especially the art. “Beautiful art opens our eyes to the beauty of the world, Evelyn proclaims. “Captures forever that which is fleeting.” War’s toll on Florence, and in Britain, is portrayed; after an explosion, Claude lost all this feathers and went silent. The filthy, ruined rooms where priceless art is found in the rubble of the war. The changes over time, culminating in a disastrous flood.

And–E. M. Forster makes an appearance in the story! His novel A Room With a View, a novel about changing social norms and embracing passion, is constantly referenced. Darnley reminds Evelyn of Forster.

Ulysses is a hero in so many ways. Saving Arturo’s life. Raising Alys. His deep friendships, his acceptance of people as they are, blessing them with the courage to be themselves. While others find love–Col, Cressy, Alys, even Massimo–he remains alone but for moments with Peg and a few kisses and touching of hands with a local woman. Peg has waited for a man she believed would return; Ulysses has mourned a man he knew would never return.

This is the story of love, every kind of love. Between friends, between ex-lovers, between women and between men. And I found myself swelling with love as I read. I wanted to live in this world. Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance, and Forster’s novel of social changes, reflect the theme of this novel and it’s nearly utopian, ideal world.

I received a free egalley from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased
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LibraryThing member moosenoose
“The most beautiful words in the world, said Ulysses. Against. All. Odds”

“Daylight beautifies and moonlight mystifies”

“Oldest story in the world…Grief…Just a lot of fucking grief”

Winman’s writing most definitely makes you feel all the feels. I laughed, I cried and I wanted to pack
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my bags and move to Florence. The characters, the scenery and the art were central to this story and were wonderfully depicted. Winman has a way of drawing you into the lives of her characters and giving you hope for the human race.

My favourite characters were Claude, Cress and Ulysses. Claude was fantastically funny, fiercely intelligent and always knew the right (and sometimes the wrong) thing to say. Cress was wise beyond his years with a well-versed manner that was at odds to his upbringing. Ulysses was simply a beautiful man with an old soul, who continually conveyed deep love and devotion to those important to him.

The ending wasn’t quite as I hoped, I can’t decide if I would have preferred Evelyn’s story to have been covered earlier. I’m also unsure of the inclusion of EM Forster, it just didn’t ‘fit’. Overall though, I really enjoyed this and came away with a number of charming quotes.
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LibraryThing member Cariola
I almost gave up on this one early on, but I'm really glad that I stayed with it. The story begins in Italy in World War II when an English soldier, Ulysses Temper, and his inspiring commanding officer join forces with Evelyn Skinner, an art historian bent on saving the treasures of Florence from
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destruction. The novel then follows these two characters--mostly Ulysses--through the next three decades and a bit beyond. Upon his return to London after the war, he rejoins an interesting group of friends who frequent or work at a pub called The Story and Parrot. There's the surly pub owner, Col, who is raising a mentally challenged daughter, Ginny, on his own. Cressy, an older man who can fix anything, communes with a beloved tree, and acts as a kind of father figure to Ullyses. Peg, a sexy woman with a mesmerizing singing voice; she's Ulysses ex-wife and still sometimes lover. Alys (aka kid), Peg's daughter conceived from a brief affair with an American soldier that she can't forget. Pete, a piano player and actor. And Claude, a parrot who not only talks (frequently spouting Shakespeare) but actually converses and comprehends what's going on around him.

Life changes for everyone when Ulysses unexpectedly inherits property in Florence. He has longed to return to the city since the war ended and decides that a move is in order. At Peg's pleading, he takes Alys, now seven, with him. Author Winman does a wonderful job of depicting the historic city, its marvelous food, and the relaxed lifestyle of the locals. Ulysses makes new friends but maintains his old ones through periodic visits, some of which turn out to be more than temporary. We watch Alys growing up and everyone else growing older, but the love between friends only deepens. That, for me, was the true heart of the novel.

As for Evelyn, Ulysses has never forgotten her, not she him, so it's inevitable that eventually they will meet again. We get bits of her life story woven into the book but more detail in the later sections, one of which focuses on her first visit to Florence. There are thematic ties between Evelyn and other characters, and even to a well-known novel set in Florence, but I'll leave readers to discover these for themselves.

Art, of course, plays an important role, as the title suggests. And like a still life painting that seems frozen in time yet changes in the viewer's perception as his or her own life experiences play out, the friendships in the novel, too, remain the same while weathering many changes.

I really enjoyed 'Still Life' and the world and characters the author creates. It left me feeling more positive about the human race than I have in a long time. I admire Winman's writing--her ability to create unique, memorable characters and to immerse her reader in her setting and her fusion of a framework with her themes. I will definitely be looking into her other books.
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LibraryThing member Fliss88
Oh my. What a sad day it was when I finished Still Life. We've all read books like this. Books that become part of our daily lives. I connected so strongly with these characters that I physically miss hearing them speak to me. The writing skills - "Tired, kind face with the keenest blue eyes that
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looked at him as if he was a meadow of wildflowers." Wouldn't you like to be looked at with that sort of joy! To be continued......
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LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
In breathtaking fashion, we catch our first glimpse of our principal characters as the allied army makes its way toward Florence in 1944. Middle-aged Evelyn Skinner, the youthful Ulysses Temper, and the dashing Captain Darnley. One way or another we follow Ulysses and Evelyn across the days and
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years, decades even, always with Florence in mind and quietly in the background, the doomed Captain. There is so much life and happenstance and a host of other characters in play that you might be swept away in what seems an almost fanciful tale of visions and high-risk bets and the full spectrum of life and love. Also a Shakespearean parrot! Thankfully we return before the end to a lengthy view of the young Evelyn, at 21, on her first visit to Florence and the blossoming of her life.

I didn’t want it to end.

Easy to recommend.
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LibraryThing member streamsong
In 1944 while fighting for the British army near Florence, Italy, Ulysses Temper met middle-aged Evelyn Skinner, an art historian who was attempting to save great works of art from the Nazis. Although Ulysses would not meet up with her again for decades, she greatly influenced his life.

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returned to England and what he hoped what his former life, revolving around the customers of a well-loved pub and a woman he loved but who didn’t love him. They had married so she would have his military insurance money if he was killed. He found that she had moved on and had a daughter by another man.

Due to an incident that happened while Ulysses was in Florence, he inherited a home there. His elderly friend, Cress, had had some very lucky hunches in his life. Cress counseled Ulysses to ‘bet it all on the black’ and give living in Italy a try. Ully does so – and takes along his not-related-in-blood but related-by-heart daughter. He is also unexpectedly joined by Cress who had smuggled Claude, the pub’s unkillable parrot along. Slowly they build a family in Florence of unrelated but wonderful characters and they open the bottom part of the house as a pensione ala [The Room With a View].

Family is where you find it and whom you make of it.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel of a lifetime of complicated relationships which never seemed to go quite
where the reader thought they might. I thought the characters were well-nuanced and felt very real.

I loved the descriptions of the city of Florence.
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LibraryThing member Gwendydd
This book follows the lives of several English people who ultimately spend most of their lives in Florence, Italy. It starts in WWII and ends in the 1970s. There isn't much of an over-arching plot: it is just the stories of people's lives with all their ups and downs. Sometimes I find it really
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annoying when a book doesn't have a plot, but in this case, I didn't mind at all. Winman's writing is delightful, and all of the characters are charming, believable, and lovable. Reading this book was like hanging out with good friends. The characters all care for each other deeply and support each other. This is one of those books that I didn't want to end because I was enjoying it so much.

The book is also a love-song to the city of Florence, as each of the English people falls in love with the city in their own way. Throughout, there are references to A Room With A View, which is one of my all-time favorites.
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LibraryThing member EllenH
This is one of those books you have to immerse yourself in, not to be read in bits and pieces, it's too complicated. I had a hard time gettin into it, but once I allowed the block of time needed, I got into it and enjoyed it.
The characters are quirky, complicated and yet realistic, and the setting
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starting during WWII in Florence, Italy and London are so well done. The history is interesting as she brings us through the 50's and 60's presenting the interwoven lives of these people,and the art, music and politics of the times.
I didn't appreciate the lack of quotation marks for spoken word, but did get mostly used to the lack there of.
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LibraryThing member LARA335
An ensemble cast of characters who find and support one another, including an opinionated parrot and the beautiful city of Florence. A novel full of charming anachronisms. While evoking the fragility of life, Winman celebrates the consolation of making and cherishing friendships. A quiet, moving
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and often amusing story that stretches from WW2 to the seventies.
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LibraryThing member shazjhb
Wonderful book. Such lovely characters. A real treat. Makes you want to move to Italy.
LibraryThing member Okies
I had high hopes for this as I loved The Tin Man. The idea is great - the part where the older woman, with her great knowledge and love of art, liaises with the two soldiers and creates a different slant on the war. I'm not sure whether I'll finish it as it seems disjointed to me - I am only two
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parts - and I haven't been able to see a thread although I have been listening to it haphazardly.

Sarah Winman is a superb narrator, a very unusual phenomenon for an author, but reminds me that I've read she was/is an actress.
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LibraryThing member gypsysmom
This is probably going to be one of my best books of 2023. The writing is beautiful, almost poetic, and the characters are so charming that I wanted to book a room in their pensione. It really doesn't get much better than this.

In 1944 British soldier Ulysses Temper, is driving through the Tuscany
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countryside to return to his base. He is flagged down by Evelyn Skinner, an art historian who is hoping to get into Florence to rescue precious works of art. When the British army enters Florence, Evelyn is driven there by Ulysses. Evelyn, age 64, has been visiting Florence since she was a girl. She even stayed at the same pensione as E. M. Forster before he wrote A Room with a View, which was based on Forster's stay in Florence. So Evelyn is very knowledgeable about the city and she passes on to Ulysses her love of the city and its art. This will not be the last time that Ulysses and Evelyn meet in Florence but it will be some years with a number of near misses. See, Ulysses saves the life of a man while he is walking through Florence in 1944 and, in gratitude, the man leaves Ulysses his large apartment when he dies. Ulysses has been back in London since the end of the war. The woman he married before he left for the war, Peg, fell in love with an American soldier and had a child by him. Peg wants a divorce from Ulysses so that when the father of her child returns she can marry him. Ulysses, still in love with Peg, can refuse her nothing and so they divorce. But Peg's child, Alys, is brought up by Ulysses because Peg can't manage to look after her. When Ulysses inherits the Florentine property he decides to move there and with Peg's acquiescence takes Alys with him. Also accompanying them is their talented neighbour, Col, who can communicate with trees and fix almost anything. As the years pass, these three become a family and, because chosen families can always accommodate more, there are additions from old acquintances and new.

This is a love story, yes, but not just about love between two people. It's about love of art and beauty and place and time too. Evelyn tells Ulysses when they first meet:
“Beautiful art opens our eyes to the beauty of the world, Ulysses. It repositions our sight and judgment. Captures forever that which is fleeting,” Art versus humanity is not the question, Ulysses. One doesn’t exist without the other.”
Read this book if you are despairing of modern life. It is an antidote to depression and angst.
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LibraryThing member bell7
Chronicles the lives of Ulysses Temper, a soldier in Florence who encounters the art critic Evelyn Skinner, Temps' wife (and then ex) Peg, her daughter Alys, and a whole host of other interconnected characters, including a Shakespeare-quoting parrot named Claude, in Florence and London from 1944 to
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This book fell in that frustrating place of one that was well-crafted and I admired the author's ability to do exactly what she set out to do, but one that left me rather cold. I couldn't get past the fact that there were no quotation marks, a pet peeve of mine, which made reading it work and the story difficult to sink into. It was, perhaps, too similar to a couple of books I read recently - Afterlife also had no quotations marks, and Zorrie also covered a simple life over several decades, but I liked each of them better. There were literary and artistic references, memorable characters, beautiful descriptions of food, and yet I was never invested.
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LibraryThing member brenzi
Oh my. Every so often I stumble into a book that I feel was written just for me. Meaty characters, unique setting, a big sprawling novel that overflows with compassion, humor, intelligence and love. Lots of love. This is that book.

Ulysses Temper was a British soldier stationed in Florence, Italy
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during WWII where he met the art historian Evelyn Skinner. She was many years older than him but almost took the place of his beautiful wife, Peg, at home in London but now in love with an American airman.

I won't be able to do this book justice because the story is larger than life and, well, sprawling, and complicated and pretty darn wonderful. I will say that there is a direct line between this book and E. M. Forster's Room With a View and I'm really glad that I read that one first.

If this sounds like the kind of book you'd enjoy then this is the book you'd enjoy lol. Absolutely wonderful.
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Independent Booksellers' Book Prize (Shortlist — Fiction — 2022)
Books Are My Bag Readers Award (Winner — Fiction — 2021)
Australian Book Industry Awards (Shortlist — 2022)
BookTube Prize (Quarterfinalist — Fiction — 2022)




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