Title: Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy
Author: Frances Mayes
Genre: Non-fiction, Travel
Publication Date: 1997
Purchase Price: Around $11 (paperback)
Misc. Info.: First in a series of books about Frances Mayes and Tuscany
It was during a trip to the Czech Republic several years ago that I stumbled upon this book at The Globe Bookstore (still one of my favorite places to this day), and bought it on a whim. I had seen the 2003 film starring Diane Lane, and figured that the book would be worth reading. Little did I know that it would become one of my favorite books.
As I was considering reviewing this book, I found myself wondering if I really enjoyed it that much, or if it had something to do with where I originally read it. Under the Tuscan Sun will always remind me of Prague.
And I think that Frances Mayes would appreciate the irony. After all, Under the Tuscan Sun is about a woman finding herself somewhere she never intended to be, doing things she never imagined she’d be doing.
Although this book revolves heavily around the author’s restoration of a century-old Tuscan home (known as Bramasole, which means “to yearn for the sun”), it’s mostly about several of my favorite things: food, people, and travel. Mayes and her husband Ed purchase and restore Bramasole in an attempt to have an impact on Italy, but in the end it is they who are forever changed by the ancient land. It’s a non-fictional tale—with most of the “plot” taken from Mayes’ journals—read through the lens of a fictional novel. The story and characters are so amazing and ridiculous and beautiful…that I have a hard time believing that they are real.
But they are. Bramasole is real, Cortona is real, Frances and Ed are real. Between talking about the recipes and people she comes to love, Frances often imagines a nonna (grandmother) who once owned Bramasole — she imagines the old woman cooking, cleaning, and living in the rooms Frances and Ed are restoring.
This book revolves a lot around food. Not only does the author include recipes in several places, but pastas and bruschette and lasagna and vegetables and fruit are sprinkled throughout the book like little treasures. It makes me hungry just reading.
Staying in a country that is so different from America seems to affect Mayes the same way it affects many travelers: we begin to notice how different the two countries are. While this can sometimes lead to disparaging remarks being made about either country, the road most often taken is a philosophical one: we discover hidden parts of ourselves, and we wonder how we’d never noticed them before. We ponder the world from a different perspective, and take pleasure in things we wouldn’t have back home.
True, all of Mayes introspection does get a wee bit long-winded toward the book’s end, but the writing has got so much going for it that it doesn’t really matter.
I could go on forever about the symphony of written words; I could glut myself on the banquet that is Mayes’ writing. But I have to resist, otherwise this blog will stretch on forever.
While it reminds me of Prague, Mayes’ book also reminds me that I need to practice dolce far neinte, the joy of doing nothing. That’s something that’s hard for me—and possibly many Americans—to do. But I’ll sure have fun trying!
If you are into excellent writing, Italy, humor, and history, I highly, highly recommend you get a copy of Under the Tuscan Sun. And since you’re probably going to get as hooked as I am, you might as well get a copy of its sequel, Bella Tuscany, while you’re at it.
“Honey-colored farmhouses, gently placed in hollows, rise like thick loaves of bread set out to cool.” (p. 16)
“I admire the beauty of scorpions. They look like black-ink hieroglyphs of themselves.” (p. 21)
“Some of the earliest methods of writing, called boustrophedon, run from right to left, then from left to right. If we were trained that way, it probably is a more efficient way to read.” (p. 68)
“They have fields of flowers to roll in. Imagine turning over and over inside a rose.” (p. 69)
“The trunk of his minuscule Fiat is piled with black grapes that have warmed all morning in the sun. I’m stopped by the winy, musty, violet scents. He offers me one. The hot sweetness breaks open in my mouth. I have never tasted anything so essential in my life as this grape on this morning. They even smell purple. The flavor, older than the Etruscans and deeply fresh and pleasing, just leaves me stunned. Such richness, the big globes, the heap of dusty grapes cascading out of two baskets. I ask for un grappolo, a bunch, wanting the taste to stay with me all morning.” (p. 113)
” ‘I wanted to see what made each one that one,’ Gertrude Stein said about her desire to write about many lives.” (p. 215)
When’s the last time you experienced dolce far niente? If you’ve traveled to foreign countries, what differences have you noticed between your culture and the one you visited? Where would you most like to visit?