Stephanie's Reviews > Under the Tuscan Sun

Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes
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Jun 29, 10

bookshelves: memoir
Read in May, 2010

Under the Tuscan Sun was first published in 1996, and given that there’s already been a film made of it, I’m a little late in getting to the party–or the family dinner as the case may be. However, given that it’s turning into a chilly autumn here in my native Melbourne, I thought that a sunny memoir might be right up my alley.

Under the Tuscan Sun is part travel memoir, part foodie tome, and part a contemplation of place and person. Author Frances Mayes and her husband Ed, both academics back in sunny, franctic San Francisco, have recently bought a run-down villa in rural Tuscany. The book traces the slow transformation of the house into something entirely uninhabitable to something that rather resembles what might be called their heart home, and the book opens with Ed and Mayes tentatively navigating the exhausting Italian real estate and bank systems as they take their first few steps to buying Bramasole, a rambling building with an equally rambling name.

The book stumbles a little at the start, perhaps because we’re nervously watching the couple desperately try to keep their heads above water in a country that although familiar to them as tourists, is entirely unfamiliar in terms of how things actually run on a day to day basis. However, as the couple slowly settles in, the book does, too, and it’s not long before we’re caught up in a mess of renovations and gardening work that at times seem to verge into the realm of archaeology. It’s fascinating to watch Ed and Mayes, so divorced from their white-collar lives in San Francisco, as they undertake a huge array of menial and back-breaking work that is so unfamiliar to them, but what is more fascinating is the utter delight that they seem to take in it. Mayes is somewhere between amused and bemused when she comments that the tasks that she avoided at home are somehow wholesome and delightful here in warm, sunny Tuscany, where she will happily spend hours pitting cherries or grinding pine nuts or cleaning and polishing.

One can’t help wonder, though, if the sheer delight taken in this sort of manual work, as well as the huge amounts of time spent on food preparation (stunningly described as it is), is only so enticing because the villa is still a holiday home, a place the couple visits during the summertime when university is no longer in session and the two have an extended break. This is reflected in Mayes’s musing when she watches an elderly woman mechanically shelling peas, a task in which Mayes herself has only an hour or so before delighted in: ‘I wouldn’t wish it on a dog,’ spits the woman about her work.

To me, this sense of place and identity is perhaps the most compelling point of the book. Watching Mayes slowly transform from straniera to Tuscan woman, or at least her conception of a Tuscan woman, is fascinating. However, one can’t help but wonder how much of her attitude and how much of her change is hinged on the fact that she can always go back. She doesn’t endure the difficult winters, or struggle with finances, or any of the challenges that might present themselves living in a rural area. While the renovations drag on, Mayes and Ed have the luxury of watching these delays from afar in San Francisco. When costs blow out, there’s always the safety net of their comfortable employment. There’s no necessity or sense of urgency, and it is interesting that Mayes seems to perceive this same trait in the Tuscans. There is a sense of holiday-ness, of laissez faire-ness upon which she comments, but one can’t help but wonder how much of this is due to the fact that this is simply what she wants to see. Mayes, I feel, constructs an image of the native Tuscan as a sort of noble savage, but never really ventures into Italian society in any real depth. Perhaps this is due to the limited time she has in the country, or perhaps due to language barriers, but there is an odd feeling of Mayes existing in a sort of ex-pat bubble in Bramasole.

In addition to its focus on person and place, Under the Tuscan Sun is also a food memoir, and it is in these sections where the book is at its finest. Mayes is somewhat of a food connoisseur, and she draws intriguing parallels of ‘food as life’ in terms of her Southern upbringing, and her time in Tuscany. To Mayes, food has an essence that fortifies and enriches, and it is in the preparation of it, from planting and tending fruit trees to planning meals to the very real act of cooking, that she seems to venerate it most. When we are told that her cooking habits in San Francisco are abrupt and fleeting due to the demanding nature of her schedule, we can see why this desire to cook in such an earthy, rustic manner has come so fervently to the fore. It’s not only a breaking of schedule and habits, but it’s also a way of recalling and reliving her youth here in this pristine, unseen place that seems to exist only for her.

Under the Tuscan Sun is a beautifully written and fascinating narrative that is more than anything a curious insight into the life of an escape—someone who has made a break from the ‘real’ world, if temporarily. The descriptions of food and gardening are breathtaking, and the recipes scattered throughout are gorgeous and simple—although potentially heart attack inducing. While Under the Tuscan Sun fails to truly pierce the Italian psyche, remaining truly an outsider perspective, and content to be so, I found it a sweet, warming read that certainly helped ameliorate a bitter autumn evening.
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