Monday, 14 February 2011

Book review: Bella Tuscany

My “Italy in Books” reading challenge continues with Frances Mayes. She is the author of Under the Tuscan Sun, a book made famous by its film version starring Diane Lane in the role of the American writer who, during a holiday in Italy, falls in love with a thirteenth-century house and decides to renovate it.

I saw the film when it came out in 2003 and then forgot everything about it until, on a recent holiday, I found the written sequel of that first book: Bella Tuscany. Subtitle: The Sweet Life in Italy. Sounded good as a light beach read! And it was. It didn’t impress me a lot though and I’m not sure how I’d feel about reading her latest book, Every Day in Tuscany. Let’s face it, there are just so many times that you can get away with describing in such detail any flower, plant and crumbling wall that you come across. And I think that they were exceeded by chapter three of Bella Tuscany!

There is no denying that, seen through the eyes of Frances Mayes, Italy is an extremely beautiful country! And I’m not saying that it isn’t. I’m just saying that it’s not all so idyllic and unspoilt. But then, this isn’t a book about Italian society and history and it doesn't intend to be that either. These are the memoirs of a foreigner who is deeply in love with a country. When you're in love with a concept, it is difficult to be unbiased.

Supposing that the arduous process of renovating an old house was detailed in Under the Tuscan Sun, Bella Tuscany narrates the hardships of maintaining the building and surrounding land in perfect order despite being a part-time resident, the beauty of the countryside, the joys and sorrows of gardening, the excitement encountered when discovering new places and foods. There are also chapters about her life in San Francisco, her passion for monogrammed linens and majolica, her favourite recipes as well as her attempts at learning Italian.

I enjoyed her anecdotes about her life in Italy and the people whom she encounters but sometimes it made me wonder whether they were all authentic or whether there was a good dose of pastoral fantasy. I have experience of living in the countryside and of having neighbours unload the occasional crate of grapes or whatever their gardens produce on your doorstep, without asking for anything in return. The world she lives in, however, seems to be a world where people shower you with unexpected gifts every day, even if they have only seen you a couple of times. A place where, no matter if a castle is closed to the public or a church is closed for renovation, you’ll always find someone who will help you get in. Just like that.

Maybe I am too sceptical. Maybe she’s just one of those people who have a gift to attract all this. I would have just found it all a little more believable if she had recounted at least one not-so-perfect experience. I do think that anyone with a passion for il bel Paese and a tendency to daydream will thoroughly enjoy this book. Personally, I need a less biased and idyllic point of view.

3 comments:

LindyLouMac said...

I read this series when they first came out in the late nineties and have to agree with you that her life does seem just a little too perfect, maybe she was lucky :)

parrish lantern said...

Not read, but based on your post the song - Back to life, back to reality - springs to mind.

Kimberly Menozzi said...

Well, you've done it. You've captured much of my own feelings toward Mayes' work - how everything in her Italian life is just a bit too perfect, how the people surrounding her are almost worshipful and quaint, until it starts to wear on you as a reader.

If one has any experience of what Italy is really like, or if one has been here for more time than what are essentially extended vacations, one knows that nothing is quite how she describes it. However, if a reader just wants to dream and have that dream impossibly perfect and unspoiled, she has a knack for giving you what you want.

That wore thin for me in a hurry, because I wanted something that related to what I'd experienced here in Italy. It's not quite envy on my part, rest assured - I just couldn't identify with that "perfect-seeming" life after a while.

I always say: Slap Frances down in a third-floor flat off the Via Emilia in Rubiera and see if she waxes so poetically about Italy after that. (Actually, I'd love to read what she'd have to say about the experience. I'd like to see how she deals with the Italy I know.)