Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Under the Tuscan Sun - Frances Mayes

Under the Tuscan Sun CoverTitle: Under the Tuscan Sun
Author: Frances Mayes
Published: 1996 Pages: 280
Genre: Memoir/Travel
Rating: 3.5/5

Lately I've come into a lot of timing issues with books--as in "I probably didn't like X book as much because of bad timing." For this book, though, the timing was absolutely perfect. Otherwise, I'm not sure I would have enjoyed it. Let me see if I can explain. Lately my reading has been sporadic at best. I've found that it's hard for me to enjoy a book as much if I have to continually put it down after reading only a few pages. For this book, though, because of the richness in the writing, sporadic reading actually worked toward my reading pleasure. When I had ample time to read the last 100 pages in one sitting, I noticed my enjoyment went down. Basically, this is the type of book to enjoy in small snippets.

Under the Tuscan Sun is an intimate memoir of Frances Mayes' experience of buying and restoring a villa in Cortona, Italy with her partner Ed. Both university professors from San Francisco, they begin spending their summer and winter holidays pouring their hearts and souls into their house, Bramasole, and in the history drenched area of Tuscany. But Mayes does more than just share the struggles of buying a home in a foreign country and working with unfamiliar systems to renovate the centuries old villa; Mayes asks her readers to slow down, take in their surroundings, and really enjoy what life is all about.

This is not a book to devour quickly but rather to savor quite slowly. Instead of writing a simple chronological order of events (although that is there in a way), Mayes takes each chapter and explains a separate part of Tuscan life--the history, the food, the community, the customs, the surrounding towns, family, and so on. Because each chapter is mostly self-contained, with the exception of the continuing construction work, Under the Tuscan Sun lends itself well to picking up and putting down. And because of the richness of the language, I would recommend doing just that so as not to burn out on Mayes highly descriptive language:

"On my way out, I see a man in a sweater, despite the heat. 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, he 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" (112).
The whole book is filled with descriptions such as the one above and I constantly felt I was transported to another time and another place. Under the Tuscan Sun made me yearn for a life where I could just stop and look around. My life is so go go go that I don't always sit back and enjoy the moment. And as I was reading this book I was racing around Europe trying to see as many things possible in a very limited amount of time--something that she scorns in the book. Is it better to see everything or to take one place and truly immerse yourself within the culture and community? I have a tendency to go for the first, but it's good to slow down every once in a while.

Under the Tuscan Sun is all about experience and Mayes' diary-like writing was perfect for me at the time. Under normal circumstances, I probably would have found myself frustrated or even bored by this book. Yes, the writing is sensuous and scrumptious, but I had to keep myself from asking "what is the point?" There doesn't always have to be a point. If you like travelogues, I'd certainly recommend this book. I definitely enjoyed it more than A Year in Provence, which tackles many of the same subjects but in France rather than Italy. Unlike with A Year in Provence, Mayes breathes life into this book. Oh, and watch for her mouthwatering recipes she includes!

A note on the movie adaptation. I LOVE this movie. Love it. Could watch it over and over (and have). The movie took a very huge departure from the book--while many of the little details from the book were put into the movie (like the quote above), the plotline itself is completely different. Kind of a disappointment to me while reading this book, but it also allowed me to experience the story with fresh eyes.

Do you have a favorite travelogue/travel memoir? A book that truly transported you to the places described?

For a balance of opinions:
Melissa at Book Nut
Mary at BookFan
(Let me know if I've missed yours)

Also shared on Cym's Book Review Party Wednesday--check it out!


Unknown said...

Travelogue is one genre that I have never read. I don't know what has been stopping me all this time from reading any travel books but I just feel hesitant about this type. I suppose I may try Frances Mayes, maybe even this particular book, sometime soon.

Mary (Bookfan) said...

I enjoyed this book as well. Here's the link to my thoughts:

A travel book that I absolutely LOVED is: McCarthy's Bar by Pete McCarthy. It's his journey around Ireland looking for any and all McCarthy's Bars. He was a very funny man and wrote a few books about his travels. I read this book on the plane back from Ireland and then placed it on my keepers book shelf. I recommend it to anyone who likes to read about Ireland, traveling, or just a humorous story.

Amanda said...

I've read memoirs, but never really a travelogue. I ought to.

Rae said...

I loved this movie too! I thought I recognized the quote, I remembed the end, the part about the grape tasting purple. :)

Laura said...

Well since I really liked A Year in Provence, I bet I would like this one even better! I also loved the movie, and ironically, it was on TV last night! Maybe you'll have to take a trip back to your favortie place you saw on your recent Europe trip and just spend a week in that one place!

Bookfool said...

I'm a big fan of Bill Bryson's travelogues. I've never used the word "travelogue", though. I guess because they tend to say "travel/memoir" on the back, I refer to them as travel memoirs. Anyway, In a Sunburned Country, Notes from a Small Island and A Walk in the Woods are all books I've enjoyed by Bryson. His books are light and humorous. I remember I kept waking up my husband when I read In a Sunburned Country because I'd try to hold in the laughter and totally failed. I laughed so hard I shook the mattress. LOL

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

*Lilly - I love to travel so I read a few of these here and there. I'm thinking Eat, Pray, Love is one of the better known travelogues. Maybe try some John Berendt.

*Mary - I haven't heard of McCarthy's Bar but I'll have to look into it. I don't think I've read any travel memoirs about Ireland before, but this one does sound funny!

*Amanda - Maybe try Travels with Charley by Steinbeck. Perhaps a bit outdated but I enjoyed it--interesting perspective on the 60s.

*Rae - I was so disappointed that she wasn't sent to Tuscany on a gay tour by her Grey's Anatomy friends after being brutally heartbroken. :( No love or romance in this book. But the food does sound amazing.

*Laura - I think you'd like this one but it is very different from the movie! But what I liked about this one versus AYP is that Mayes shares more about herself rather than taking a more objective approach.

*Bookfool - LOL--I guess since you're here you can see I failed at getting The Impostor's Daughter review done. :P Anyway, yes, Bill Bryson is on my list. I thin I might even have A Walk in the Woods on my shelf.

serendipity_viv said...

I like the idea of reading the book slowly and savouring it. I have seen this book around, so I will definitely try and pick it up.

Bookfool said...

LOL, Trish! Yes, but I was hoping I convinced you not to kick yourself and to just take your time with it. :)

A Walk in the Woods has a disturbing section, so be prepared to be a little shocked at one point. It's such a fun book, though. I love Bill Bryson. I hope you love him, too!

Anonymous said...

I love travel memoirs. I don't read them that often, but I still love them. North of Ithaka is interesting, as is The Caliph's House. They both deal with remodeling houses, the first in Greece, the second in Morocco.

bermudaonion said...

I loved A Year in Provence, so I'd probably love this one too. I'm sure it would make me want to go to Italy too.

Melissa said...

I absolutely adored this book (and have refused to see the movie on principle for years, too). It, to me, is the epitome of travel books: gives you a complete essence of place, enough so that you yearn to be there. I haven't like the other books I've read by her as much, though.

Another absolute favorite is Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.

For more thoughts, here's a piece I did for Estella's Revenge a while back.

Lisa said...

I read this before blogging, and I remember enjoying it a lot. For a couple years I was really into travelogues and they are still some of my favorite books. Like someone else said, LOVED Bill Bryson's Walk in the Woods, but it's totally different from Italy.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

I love this movie too -- I think mostly because of all the beautiful colors and the rich sense of the place you get from watching it.

It's interesting you think the book is good in small doses. I feel the same way about Susan Orlean; I think she's brilliant, but when I read a ton of her all at the same time it drags.

Kailana said...

I am surprised I haven't read this by now. It is not even on my TBR pile!

Unknown said...

Thanks for this really great book review. I hate when a book & movie do not mesh, especially if I read the book after seeing the movie.

Thanks for joining in the Book Review Blog Link-up. Be sure to check back Friday AM when I announce the $25 Amazon Gift Card winner.

One more thing: Could you please add a link to my "Blog Book Review" posting to the end of your posting review? This way readers who are going down the list can click back and forth easily.

Thanks again!

Unknown said...

I just noticed you are in Dallas. Me too.

Tasha said...

I forgot there are recipes in this book. Have you made any of them?

Anonymous said...

I love the movie and although I knew it was based on a book I had no idea it was a memoir. I figured that the plot of the movie is different then the book while reading your review, so I'll be more eager to read the book now.

I loved 'Chasing the monsoon' by Alexander Frater. It's a travellegue in which he actually chases the rain from the Southern most tip of India which ends in Cherapungi, the place with the highest rainfall. It's a very good and informative book.

L said...

I hope you met lots of hot Italian guys like in the movie. If I ever go to Europe, I better meet lots of hot Italians that's for sure!
Loved the movie. Now I'll get the book. I love travelogues.
Great review!

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

*Vivienne - Sometimes it feels like we are always rushing through books to get to the next. It was nice to read this one a little slower.

*Bookfool - Ahhh, maybe this weekend I'll get to Impostor's Daughter. Lost steam. :) I'll watch for the disturbing part of Walk in the Woods--you've got me curious!!

*Softdrink - Hmmm, this one and A Year in Provence are about house remodels as well--looks like there's a market for house remodeling in foreign countries!

*Bermuda - Oh, this book will definitely make you want to go to Italy! And eat lots of great food. :)

*Melissa - The movie is nothing like the book--so unless you're in the mood for a great romantic type movie, don't see it. Ah, you and Bookfool both recommend A Walk in the Woods! I'll have to get to that one!

*Lisa - Gahhh, another one for Walk in the Woods. I swear I have that one at home...must look.

*Kim - I've always wanted to read Susan Orlean but you don't hear much about her and so I forget. Thanks for reminding me!

*Kailana - If you like travelogues, add this to the list--but it's not one to rush through!

*Cym - It's tough for me to read a book after seeing (and loving) a movie. Thanks for hosting the link party! And hey--another Dallasite. I don't think there are many of us.

*Charley - I haven't tried any of the recipes yet but some of the desserts--mostly the ones involving pears--sound amazing.

*Violetcrush - You'll have to read this book knowing it will be very different, but it is fun to see how some of the book elements were put into the movie. Chasing the Monsoon sounds amazing--what an intriguing premise!

*Lula O - No hot Italians in the book--that's reserved solely for the movie. :( But lots of yummy food--sometimes food is better then men, right?? :P

Veens said...

I have never read a Travelogue! I hope someday I will.

Anna said...

I haven't seen the movie but I've wanted to for a while. Glad to know the book and movie are different. I'm adding the book to my ever-growing to-read list. Thanks for the review.

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