Thursday, May 28, 2009

Book Review: Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes

Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes

As we entered our alma mater's chapel for the funeral Mass of our classmate, I noticed a table of books. Several of us stopped at the table reverently, already overcome with the emotion of mourning our friend who had died of cancer at age 30.

Someone created a display of her favorite books (I love this idea, and I've since put The Dean on notice that I expect to see the same at my funeral, too.) I wanted to write the titles down, wanted to gather them all up at that instant and read them immediately in the spirit of remembrance. I did neither, and a decade later I can remember only two of them: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I tried to read a few years ago, but couldn't get through, and Under the Tuscan Sun.

Under the Tuscan Sun is part memoir, part travelogue, and part cookbook. While some might find this trio enchanting, the format didn't quite work for me. Had Mayes simply written three separate books (and I know she has written subsequent books with similar subject matter), I think it would have worked better.

The first part of the story deals with Mayes and her husband Ed's decision to purchase Bramasole, a villa in Cortona, Italy in need of more than an ample amount of TLC. It is in this portion of her book that Mayes is at her best, writing about taking chances, chasing dreams, embracing the unexpected. Mayes writes of the "what-if's" that haunted her, despite the house's abundance of olive trees (117!) and fruit trees, scenic views, and oh, the location, location, location.

"Wouldn't we be crazy not to buy this lovely house called Bramasole? What if one of us is hit by a potato chip truck and can't work? I run through a litany of diseases we could get. An aunt died of a heart attack at forty-two, my grandmother went blind, all the ugly illnesses ... What if an earthquake shakes down the universities where we teach? The Humanities Building is on a list of state structures most likely to fall in a moderately severe quake. What if the stock market spirals down?"

(Well, we certainly know the answer to that question now, don't we?)

Frances and her husband Ed do, in fact, purchase the house and embark on the extensive renovations needed. This part of the book, while interesting, got a bit too detailed for me. I did not inherit my father's do-it-yourself-weekend-warrior-home-and-garden-project gene. I'm simply not hard-wired that way, so Mayes' details of pruning acres of foliage and fortifying 300 year old walls made my eyes glaze over. But, for people who are into renovating old houses and interested in architecture, I'd imagine this part of the book would be fascinating.

Towards the middle of the book Mayes provides several recipes from her Tuscan kitchen and several do sound delectable. (Not sure how kid-friendly they are, as Mayes and her husband don't have children together. This is a fact she refers to with the house, by equating the ongoing manual labor and renovations as being akin to having triplets. As a parent of multiples, I appreciate the humor, but I don't think you can say that anything is similar to having multiples if you haven't been there and done that. I've also never renovated a 300-year old Italian villa, either, so maybe it is an accurate comparison.) It is, however, a good idea not to read Under the Tuscan Sun on an empty stomach, as the descriptions of the food are mouth-watering. I also liked the descriptions of Cortona and of the surrounding towns, of the restaurants and the shops, the people and just general life in Italy. Mayes does a good job of writing about the summer and winter (the two seasons she spends in Cortona, as she is a university professor in California).

There is, however, a somewhat pretentious and patronizing tone in parts of Under the Tuscan Sun and it's noticeable on several occasions. It is also the reason why I wanted to read the last 90 pages of the book. (I listened to the first 190 pages of Under the Tuscan Sun on audio and read the last 90 pages on the train to the city.) In my opinion, narrators of audio books are critically important as they hold the power to make or break a story for the listener/reader. Whenever I'm not liking an audio book, I try to evaluate whether or not it is the narration or the story. If it's the former, I'll get the printed version instead and try that.

But even in the reading, I still found prose like this somewhat off-putting:

"Ah, dinner, the favorite hour. Tonight it's Caino, which we expect to be the gastronomic highlight of our trip. ... A few highly bronzed people from the expensive hotel near the falls seem to be looking for something to buy. but the shops are plain. They settle at an outdoor cafe and order colorful drinks in tall glasses .... "We're falling into a deep relaxation and exhilaration by now, just what a vacation is supposed to be. "Would you like to go to Morocco?" Ed asks out of nowhere. "What about Greece? I never intended not to go to Greece." Seeing new places always brings up the possibility of other new places. We're riveted again by the beautiful couple. ... We will have to forego dolci, but with our coffee they bring a plate of little pastries anyway, which we manage to eat. This is one of the best dinners I've had in Italy. Ed proposes that we stay a few more days and eat here every night."

Is it me or does that kind of read like your snooty relative's Christmas letter about how they've been traveling the globe and eating in five-star restaurants while you, the poor peasant, are clipping coupons and comparing circulars to see who has the best deal on SPAM?

Perhaps reading this in 1996 when first published was a very different experience than in the Great Recession of 2009. Much of the writing reads like one's diary or a writing prompt that you later revise. And speaking of edits, I think that Under the Tuscan Sun would have been a much stronger read at half its length. For example, a lengthy description about not being able to find her keys to her California home after arriving from Italy seemed extraneous; Mayes finds her keys. What was the point of including that? I could have also done without the details about Fabio the bricklayer's impending dental work (I'm serious. From page 254: "He's working in spite of toothache and shows us the rotting lower left area of his mouth. I bite my lip to keep from looking startled. He's having four pulled next week, all at once." ) That's a shame, but again, this is not essential to the book. There are too many of these types of passages to make it slightly irksome.

So, at the conclusion of Under the Tuscan Sun, I'm no closer to understanding what it was that made this book so special to my friend as to earn a place of honor at her funeral. Was it the message about taking chances, embracing all of life with gusto, living your dream? Did she dream of writing and living in Tuscany, discovering her own Italian heritage? Perhaps that's what attracts so many as devotees of this book, and perhaps those were the aspects that made this book one of her favorites.

I wish she was still here so I could know for sure.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

No comments: