Lately I’ve come into a lot of timing issues with books–as in “I probably didn’t like X book as much because of bad timing.” For this book, though, the timing was absolutely perfect. Otherwise, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it. Let me see if I can explain. Lately my reading has been sporadic at best. I’ve found that it’s hard for me to enjoy a book as much if I have to continually put it down after reading only a few pages. For this book, though, because of the richness in the writing, sporadic reading actually worked toward my reading pleasure. When I had ample time to read the last 100 pages in one sitting, I noticed my enjoyment went down. Basically, this is the type of book to enjoy in small snippets.
Under the Tuscan Sun is an intimate memoir of Frances Mayes’ experience of buying and restoring a villa in Cortona, Italy with her partner Ed. Both university professors from San Francisco, they begin spending their summer and winter holidays pouring their hearts and souls into their house, Bramasole, and in the history drenched area of Tuscany. But Mayes does more than just share the struggles of buying a home in a foreign country and working with unfamiliar systems to renovate the centuries old villa; Mayes asks her readers to slow down, take in their surroundings, and really enjoy what life is all about.
This is not a book to devour quickly but rather to savor quite slowly. Instead of writing a simple chronological order of events (although that is there in a way), Mayes takes each chapter and explains a separate part of Tuscan life–the history, the food, the community, the customs, the surrounding towns, family, and so on. Because each chapter is mostly self-contained, with the exception of the continuing construction work, Under the Tuscan Sun lends itself well to picking up and putting down. And because of the richness of the language, I would recommend doing just that so as not to burn out on Mayes highly descriptive language:
“On my way out, I see a man in a sweater, despite the heat. The trunk of his minuscule Fiat is piled with black grapes that have warmed all morning in the sun. I’m stopped by the winy, musty, violet scents. He offers me one. The hot sweetness breaks open in my mouth. I have never tasted anything so essential in my life as this grape on this morning. They even smell purple. The flavor, older than the Etruscans and deeply fresh and pleasing, just leaves me stunned. Such richness, the big globes, he heap of dusty grapes cascading out of two baskets. I ask for un grappolo, a bunch, wanting the taste to stay with me all morning” (112).
The whole book is filled with descriptions such as the one above and I constantly felt I was transported to another time and another place. Under the Tuscan Sun made me yearn for a life where I could just stop and look around. My life is so go go go that I don’t always sit back and enjoy the moment. And as I was reading this book I was racing around Europe trying to see as many things possible in a very limited amount of time–something that she scorns in the book. Is it better to see everything or to take one place and truly immerse yourself within the culture and community? I have a tendency to go for the first, but it’s good to slow down every once in a while.
Under the Tuscan Sun is all about experience and Mayes’ diary-like writing was perfect for me at the time. Under normal circumstances, I probably would have found myself frustrated or even bored by this book. Yes, the writing is sensuous and scrumptious, but I had to keep myself from asking “what is the point?” There doesn’t always have to be a point. If you like travelogues, I’d certainly recommend this book. I definitely enjoyed it more than A Year in Provence, which tackles many of the same subjects but in France rather than Italy. Unlike with A Year in Provence, Mayes breathes life into this book. Oh, and watch for her mouthwatering recipes she includes!
A note on the movie adaptation. I LOVE this movie. Love it. Could watch it over and over (and have). The movie took a very huge departure from the book–while many of the little details from the book were put into the movie (like the quote above), the plotline itself is completely different. Kind of a disappointment to me while reading this book, but it also allowed me to experience the story with fresh eyes.
Do you have a favorite travelogue/travel memoir? A book that truly transported you to the places described?
Also shared on Cym’s Book Review Party Wednesday–check it out!