Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes (1996)

     Shall I confess it? I saw the movie long before I read the book. Indeed, it was the movie that first brought the book to my attention – until then, I had never heard of Frances Mayes, even though her memoir was a n#1 New York Times Bestseller for two and a half years. An Italian friend of mine sneered at the movie in no uncertain terms, so I hope he’ll be pleased to know it has absolutely nothing to do with the book it is supposedly based on. I had to look very, very hard to find the two or three shreds of detail that link the Frances of the book to the Frances of the movie. It is amazing what a scriptwriter can do with so little!

     The book covers a period of five years and deals with three main subjects: the purchase and (lengthy!) restoration of the Bramasole domain by Mayes and her partner Ed; settling into Cortona, with all that entails of discovering local markets and trattorie, and making friends both among the Italians and the expatriate community; and lastly moving further afield to get to know the rest of Tuscany. Inevitably, the narrative includes a certain number of ingredients that have become regrettably cliché: cicadas, cypresses, olive trees and olive oil, wine, hot sunshine, and excitable hand-waving Italians (who of course drive like maniacs in shiny Alfa Romeos!). These are an expected part of the décor, and I suppose no book on Tuscany would be believable (or marketable, for that matter) without them. At least Mayes’ descriptions come, not from fantasy, but from real experience.  

     This said, it would be pretentious and hypocritical of me in the extreme to pretend I did not derive enjoyment from these descriptions of life in a Tuscan villa. The words “yellow peaches” are enough to send me into a delicious daydream, and there were several other intensely pleasurable passages: watching a jeweled lizard sunning itself on a wall; spreading the table under the lindens with a yellow-checked tablecloth for lunch; growing basil outside the kitchen door; stepping out barefoot onto the dewy grass to enjoy a cup of coffee and watch the sun rise; adding new rose bushes and lavender shrubs to the already fragrant rose walk.

     None of this, however, is unchartered territory. Everyone has at least a vague idea of what summer in Tuscany is like. What I therefore found more interesting was Mayes’ account of spending Christmas at Bramasole. Going for brisk walks and then stopping off for hot chocolate at the local café; seeing the fog rise from Lake Trasimeno to engulf the olive trees on the terraces and hide the town from view; going on a quest for the perfect panettone and roasting chestnuts over the fire; admiring the homemade Nativity scenes in every shop window and church…

     Accompanying these juicy evocations of la dolce vita comes a wealth of historical anecdotes about the area. Among other things pertaining to Etruscan tombs, Roman roads, mediaeval churches and Renaissance palaces, I learnt that the mediaeval houses of Cortona all have a second doorway next to the main entrance, now bricked up but used in former days to carry out plague victims. These narrow doorways are called the “doors of the dead” – a somewhat chilling reminder of the past to have to live with every day. On a lighter note, I also found out that the cappuccino owes its name to the distinctive brown robes and white hats of Capuchin friars. Whether this is one hundred percent true or not I do not know, but I love the idea.

     My main issue with the book concerns certain of Mayes’ stylistic quirks. She is a writer with a very distinctive style, and while in general I think it makes for very good reading, there were a few instances where pleasure was superseded by annoyance. Her habit, for example, of beginning a sentence directly with an adjective soon had my teeth on edge: the first time I came across an “Interesting that…” or a “Shocking to see that…” I thought it was refreshing, that it contributed a natural feel to the sentence, as if the pen were transcribing half-formed thoughts or one of those lazy conversations where one finds oneself omitting certain grammatical requisites because they take too long to say and one knows anyways that the other person will understand. Two hundred pages later, when Mayes was still doing it, I began to lose my temper: what had seemed novel and refreshing was now simply affected and wearying. What is so wrong anyways with respecting the rules of the English language?! Grammar dictates that there should be a subject and a verb in every sentence (even such empty ones as “It” and “is”!) so put them in, for heavens’ sake! 

     More astonishing for someone who teaches creative writing are certain choices of words which sound clumsy, ill-adapted. On an outing to the beach one day, she could not read because the sun was “blaring”. “To blare” is a sound-related verb, as Frances Mayes is no doubt aware. It is more commonly associated with the volume of a teenager’s radio or the blast from a trumpet than with the force of the sun’s rays. If it was Mayes’ intention to compare the blinding, head-pounding experience of an Italian August day’s sunlight with the deafening sound of a trumpet at close range, then the metaphor is truly magnificent. However, as the verb stands, unadorned, unexplained, and its potential unexploited, it merely gives one the impression that Mayes made a mistake and wrote b instead of g.

     Similarly, when she describes the opera house in Cortona and how she once sat in it for two hours watching a Russian ballet troupe “thump around” on the stage, I am seriously tempted to write to her and request an explanation. Were the dancers really so awful, so ungraceful, so uncoordinated in their movements that they actually thumped? (In which case, it might be nice to specify). Or was Mayes troubled with boredom, indigestion, an urgent need to pee, or any other condition that made her unable to appreciate the performance? Or was she trying to be humorous (I’m not laughing)? Last solution, was she simply trying to use a different verb to the logical “danced”? (In which case, as a balletomane, I strongly object to her choice of substitute!)

     I do not wish to appear pernickety or pedantic, so I will stop the catalogue here. It is important to note that these details, though they bugged me, did not spoil my overall enjoyment of the book. As an educated, cultured person’s tribute to the multi-layered beauty of Tuscany, it is second to none. Viva Italia!

© Florence Berlioz 2011

About Miss Darcy's Library

I love books - buying books, reading books, discussing books, and generally admiring them from all angles (except the e-book). I also love tea, roses, and my dogs, and seldom pass up an opportunity to slip them into the conversation.
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2 Responses to Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes (1996)

  1. limr says:

    I know what you mean about stylistic devices being overused and getting under your skin. I read Under the Tuscan Sun too long ago to remember if I was annoyed by the same things as you were, but I’ve certainly read books that I’ve wanted to toss out the window because of that issue. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize it in your own writing, but for the love of Fred, where’s the editor?

    Oh, and I refused to watch the movie when it came out.

  2. The movie is actually quite fun, if lightweight…
    Thank you so much for stopping by! I look forward to many more exchanges, palimpsest-related or not 🙂

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