Book Review: Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes

I made the mistake of watching the movie before reading this book. That was not a good idea. As a general principle, always read the book first. I find the movie a lightly entertaining romantic comedy set in a lovely location, but all the romantic comedy elements have been added and are not part of the original book.

In the film, Frances Mayes, the author, becomes part of a group tour of Tuscany after a nasty divorce, comes across an old dilapidated villa with overgrown grounds near an ancient village called Cortona and decides to buy and restore it. She has all kinds of mishaps, misadventures, and romances, as do the minor characters such as the villagers and the workers who assist her, and in the end she meets an American writer and there is promise of a romance to follow.

All of this is made up specifically for the film except the part where Mayes buys a house near Cortona in Tuscany. The book has none of the romantic plot points. It is a straightforward and beautifully written account of Keyes and her partner (they are not married but they have a solid relationship) searching for years for a house and property to buy in Italy, settling on the villa near Cortona, going through the red tape of purchasing it, and then restoring the house and its extensive grounds. There are no emotional crises at all, and the only difficulties and tension are in the amount of work involved and the unreliability in the scheduling of the Italian and Polish workers who assist them.

It’s okay, though, that the movie and the book are so dissimilar. Personally, I much prefer the book, but that’s because I would much rather read a well-written travel book than watch a light romantic comedy. And this book is very well-written. In its best passages, when Mayes evokes the beauty of the landscape, the history, the culture, the people, and the cuisine of Tuscany, it renews in me an appreciation for the simple joys of life: travel in stunning landscapes, delicious local cuisine, and profound friendships. I too have journeyed in foreign lands and savored these pleasures.

This brings me to one of the irritants of the book, at least for me personally. The story is told from the viewpoint of the wealthy, and in telling its tale of dreams come true, it takes endless supplies of money for granted. Keyes and her partner Ed are both university professors based in the Bay Area with no dependent children. They have a commodious apartment in San Francisco and can still afford to purchase a large expensive property in Italy and pour seemingly limitless amounts of funds into their restoration project. They have their entire summers off, during which they fly every year to Italy, work on their house, take tours around Tuscany, purchase antiques and fine wines, and eat elaborate multi-course meals in restaurants whenever they want. This is not a reality that many people can relate to. It is more like a fairy tale or pipe dream, an unattainable fantasy. When I traveled the world, it was on a shoestring budget, or usually, in fact, on no budget at all. When I visited Tuscany it was in someone else’s camper, and I never would have been able to afford a multi-course meal in a restaurant, not even once. When I hitchhiked through Europe back in my hippy travel days, my compatriots and I would seek out the least expensive hole-in-the-wall restaurants and order the cheapest things on the menu.

I probably came closest to doing what Mayes and her partner did, albeit on a much humbler scale, when my Greek wife and I raised our family in Thessaloniki. Our first house (actually one section in a triplex) was in a beautiful village in the hills east of the city. When we bought it, it was unfinished, and the contractor gave us the pleasure of choosing paint colors and tiles for the floors, kitchen, and bathrooms. After we moved in, I would buy fresh fruit and vegetables at weekly street markets and our meat from local butchers, and my wife would cook delicious Greek dishes. Of course, our circumstances were vastly different; my wife and I both worked fulltime, we had five kids to raise, and so we were on an extremely tight budget. We saved up our money so that we could afford to go to a nice restaurant maybe once or twice a year.

It’s okay, though, that most people would be unable to do what Mayes and her partner did. When people read fairy tales, they don’t expect to really become kings, queens, princes, or princesses. You can enjoy armchair traveling even if you might never be able to visit these places yourself.

There’s only one place in which the book takes a resounding pratfall. Near the end, Mayes devotes a chapter to comparing the Catholic religion, customs, and shrines she sees all around her with the voodoo and superstitions she remembers from her childhood in Louisiana. This doesn’t really make much sense. Up until this point, she has professed her agnosticism but at the same time shown respect, appreciation, and even veneration for the churches and icons that are all around her in Cortona and the rest of Tuscany, while in this chapter she seems to deride them. Apart from this one deviance from her general tone, though, this book is a pleasant, sensual tour through a truly lovely part of the world.

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