Review: Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes
Wednesday, February 8, 2012
After many years vacationing in Italy, Frances Mayes and her--husband? I don't think that's ever clarified--decide to buy a home in Tuscany. They search for a while, but nothing really calls to them. Then they stumble upon a home called Bramasole in the town of Cortona. It's a wreck, but they can't get it out of their heads. They go over and over all the reasons that they shouldn't buy it. And then they follow their hearts and move in and get to work.
First of all, I just need to say that this book has little in common with the movie except for the title. As she kept writing about "our house" and "our money," I kept looking back to see if I was missing something. She's buying the house with someone? And not just anyone, but a significant other? This was supposed to be about remodeling a house in Tuscany and romance with handsome Italians! What happened here?!?
Still, I enjoyed it, even more than the movie. So what if there aren't any romances with Italian men? I got to read beautiful descriptions that left me feeling as if I had just soaked in the heat of a Tuscan August, and left me feeling as if I really had been living life at a slower pace. Mayes is a very evocative writer and I was lost in the Tuscan countryside almost immediately. I didn't envy them the work they were doing, but I loved reading about the connection she was making with the house, the previous owners, and the roots she was growing. She refers often to the nonna that she imagines previously lived in the house, and wonders what she would think of the changes they are making and the food they are cooking. The nonna becomes something of a benevolent guardian, bestowing happiness and calm on all who enter.
The owners need that calm at times as they navigate the Italian method of renovating. Contractors they hire get sick, the replacement ones don't show up when they say they will, nothing is as easy as it seems, and fixing one problem seems to uncover ten more. Well, now that I think about it, that's probably a description of renovations the world over!
I enjoyed the pace of life that she fell into living in Tuscany. They strolled into town and loved to watch the evening passagietta, or stroll, when everyone who possibly can is out "meeting and greeting" in the dreamy twilights. I loved the way that life in Tuscany still seems to be so connected to the seasons. Your meals are actually planned around what's in season in your area and if you didn't grow the produce yourself, you probably just bought it from a farmer who picked it early that morning or the day before.
There's a tiny part of me that is tempted to place this on my Southern lit shelf, because Mayes is a Georgia girl and she frequently compares her life growing up in the South to the life she is living in Tuscany. Both cultures seem to be a little resistant to change, there's a strong sense of history and connection to the land, families have known families forever (well, maybe not quite as long in the South, but you know what I mean). "Southerners have a gene, as yet undetected in the DNA spirals, that causes them to believe that place is fate. Where you are is who you are." The Italians she meets seem to have that same bit of DNA.
One of my favorite chapters is entitled "Turning Italian." I love the first part when she writes about Ed and how she's watched him slowly change as they live in Italy. Starting as a tea drinker, he's learned to love syrupy-sweet espresso. He's learned to love the land and constantly nourishes it. But my favorite bit is how he's taken to Italian driving. "Most travellers here feel that driving in Rome qualifies as an experience that can be added to one's vita, that everyday autostrada trips are examinations in courage and that the Amalfi coast drive is a definition of hell." We spent two weeks in Italy in 2008 and I still have not gotten over the experience. Now, if we vacation somewhere that we can't drive to, we learn to navigate the public transportation or we walk. My husband has been grounded. He took a little too well to the utter chaos of Italian driving. I have a story that I love to tell, but let's just say that trying to find our way back to the rental car garage in Florence left me a quivering, screeching mass of nerves, cussing my husband for all he was worth. I don't cuss my husband. We barely even fight. That's how bad it was. So I laughed as I read the author's experiences and tried not to have flashbacks of driving the wrong way down a stretch of road in Rome with a barricade on one side of us and buildings on the other. *Shudder* Luckily for my husband, that was the taxi driver. I might have been driven to bloodshed if I had known the driver at all. But then again, bloodshed would have required letting go of the "chicken stick" I left my fingerprints in.
I wasn't quite as thrilled that she wrote so much about food. I'm not a foodie; I'm probably one of the pickiest adult eaters you will ever meet. So her loving descriptions of how to prepare rabbit or veal or wild boar were lost on me. I did still read every word, mostly for the small personal observations she worked in. So props to the author for getting me to read recipes that don't involve sugar!
I recommend this to armchair travelers, and those who enjoy thoughtful, beautifully written memoirs.
Read an excerpt.
Find author Frances Mayes on her website.
Buy Under the Tuscan Sun at
I have an affiliate relationship with Malaprop's, my local independent bookstore located in beautiful downtown Asheville, NC; and Better World Books. I will receive a small commission at no cost to you if you purchase books through links on my site.