by Frances Mayes
Not a cohesive memoir so much as a personal diary of the author’s time in Tuscany, now twenty years on since her bestseller. Perhaps because this is her fourth volume of Tuscan ramblings (I have not read anything else by her), she does not take the time to introduce characters but rather just drops their names – is Ed her second husband? Third? Common-law live-in partner? Is her grandchild’s mother her daughter, or Ed’s, or what? Who are all these neighbors, and their relation to her? It’s not terribly important, perhaps, but a nagging distraction for those who have just picked up this one book. In a similar vein, she drops the names of such things as “DOC wines” without explaining that this is an official quality assurance label. In this sense the book is, ironically, very off-putting and exclusionary, since she is trying to write as if composing letters to close friends. It’s very poetic, adjective-drenched, sensual language, light on events and drama, and even lighter on chronological sense. It’s predominately the scents of food and vibrant colorful flowers and thick soft warm cloths, mountains and wooden furniture and Renaissance paintings and fireside sing-alongs.
There is a brief point at which something approaching a conflict of interest or drama approaches. She is caught up in local politics, and – and after a build-up that makes it seem as if a loved one will be tortured in front of her – she relates a slightly unpleasant event that shook her up a bit. Her fear soon passes without further incident, as does her telling of it, and after a few pages musing on the bad things that happened to people she’s known, it’s off again with menus, museum tours, shops, flowers, page after page after page about paintings, apparently cribbed from museum tour guides or books on art history – to me the absolute pinnacle of boring reading. All this, with no particular progression or thought to build up a coherent narrative journey: near the very end of the book is when she chooses to ramble about her struggles with the Italian language – why then? – and of course then switches gears abruptly, droning about what might have been if she’d stayed in Georgia – which can be of no interest to anyone but herself. All this museum-visiting and garden-planting and wine-tasting and restaurant-lingering and pasta-making and house-renovating is perhaps fascinating stuff to those who read to live vicariously, but it is not for me. In the end, Mayes’ personal prose style says very little about Tuscany itself, and quite a lot about what a wealthy woman writer from Georgia enjoys doing all day. That, to me, is not what travel writing is all about. The final chapter is pseudo-metaphysical pretentious nonsense (“is the universe – at some distance – shaped like the bones of a cranium?”). Boring. Utterly boring.