Frances Mayes’ first two books about her experiences buying and restoring a villa in Italy are immensely entertaining and charming. I wanted to read Under the Tuscan Sun because I had enjoyed the movie version so much; I thought the book must be even better, right? Oh, it is, it is! But it’s also a very different story than the one we get on the screen, so let me clear away a few notions, first.
Though she was recovering from a traumatic divorce, Frances was no wide-eyed, first-time tourist when she discovered, and impulsively decided to buy, Bramasole. She had been spending her summers in Italy for years, renting houses in different areas and getting a feel for the life there. She was accompanied by her future second husband, Ed, so there’s no Marcello in the picture, either. (On reading the script for the movie, Frances comments to Ed that she has been given a tryst with a handsome Italian. “I’m sorry I missed that,” she teases him.) And if her pregnant and abandonded lesbian best friend did arrive to have her baby in Italy, Frances discreetly does not mention it in her memoirs.
However, the charming Senor Martini is a major character, their real estate broker and all-around guide to la dolce vita, who in the second book retires from his career and becomes Anselmo, their talented gardener. Primo, the builder, and his crew of Polish workers are also there, though again the romantic subplot with the builder’s daughter is not. Most importantly, Bramasole, with all its charms and faults, is very much present.
If we take out the Hollywood (melo)drama, what’s left? A rich, beautiful story of a woman whose life takes several unplanned turns that lead her home. A story that, like the Italian food and wine she lovingly describes, is to be savored, not gulped. A Slow Books movement, like the Slow Food club Frances and Ed join, could be founded on these delicious books. Usually, slow progress through a book is a sign I don’t care for it–I put it down and don’t pick it back up for a few days at a time. With these books, I was picking them up every chance I got, but I was reading every word carefully, pausing to put myself in every scene. I wanted to see and smell and taste everything she described.
The two books differ in focus and tone. I think of Under the Tuscan Sun as the “house book”, as it centers on buying Bramasole, going through the major renovations to make it livable, and exploring the joys of the Italian kitchen. Bella Tuscany , the “yard book”, is both more external and more internal–the action focuses more on their land and gardens, and the writing waxes more poetic and personal. Her chapter on good guests and bad guests made me laugh out loud; it appears there are a few people, identified by name, that she doesn’t care to host–or possibly even speak to–again. Her chapter on her love for vintage monogrammed linens brought me to tears, as she tells the stories of several of the linens she has inherited, and a few she bought at markets and made up stories for, and then closes with this:
Carolyn, Assunta, Mary, Flavia, Donatella, Altrude, Frankye, Luisa, Barbara, Kate, Almeda, Dorothea, Anne, Rena, Robin, Nancy, Susan, Giusi, Patrizia–we’re all having dinner at my house.
She has such a sense of place, of history. She feels the connections of her life to those who came before and came after. She recognizes that her tenure at Bramasole will be only a brief part of the house’s total life span, but rather than feeling diminished by the realization, she feels expanded, made eternal by her role in a story that stretches for centuries to either side of her single human life. The house’s history is like a family she has married into, twining their two stories together, linking her family’s future to it for at least two generations, possibly more.
In these two books, Mayes does more to promote the delights of domesticity than Martha Stewart has in all her time on our TV screens and coffee tables. Enraptured by her description of days spent weeding the garden and ironing linens fresh off the drying line, I suddenly realized that I was envying her housework! I was longing for occupations that my mother and grandmother tried for years to interest me in–keeping houseplants, gardening, cooking and canning home-grown food. Why didn’t I ever notice how interesting those things could be? Why didn’t I pay more attention when my grandma was still here to teach me? And is it really so much more romantic at an Italian villa than at an Iowa farmhouse, or does Mayes just have a knack for making it seem that way? (Oh, OK–yes, it probably is a lot more romantic in Tuscany.)
We can’t all buy and restore an Italian villa, nor would we necessarily want to; but it is a lovely life to drop in on, and we can take inspiration from Frances’ passionate approach to living, and bring a little Tuscan sun into our own lives.