Thursday, March 16, 2017

Book 68: Under The Tuscan Sun

"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."

Dates read: July 7-12, 2016

Rating: 5/10

I am super fortunate: not only have I been able to travel internationally, but I've been to Italy three times. I don't think there's any way to say it that doesn't sound like humblebragging, but my mom has always valued traveling with my sister and I, so she's been generous enough to take us on family vacations. The first time I went was Florence and Rome, the second was just Florence, and about a year and a half ago we went to Sorrento. Of the places I've been, Florence is my favorite. Tuscany is an incredible place and I hope I get to go back someday.

Even if I never do go back, though, I feel incredibly lucky to I've been able to go to Tuscany at all. But it's one level of privilege to be able to visit briefly. It's a whole other level to be able to buy property over there and actually live there for parts of the year. But what some of us can only dream of, others are able to make happen and Frances Mayes' Under the Tuscan Sun recounts her experiences buying and renovating a farmhouse in Cortona, Italy, and the first years she spent with it as her Christmas and summer home.

First things first: the movie (which I've never seen) is apparently not a strict adaptation of the book. While in both cases Frances' divorce from an apparently very wealthy man (she mentions it only vaguely in the book) is what enables her to purchase the home, the movie apparently gives her a hot new Italian man to mend her broken heart. In reality/the book, she is already happily remarried by the time she decides to start looking for a summer home in Italy. Let me stress that again: they have the means to start searching for a summer home in ITALY. If rich white people doing home renovation, eating food, and contemplating their navels is not your deal, this book will not be for you. I've seen rather a lot of negative reviews focused on the premise that the book is not like the movie and/or annoyed that it's about nothing more than wealthy people doing construction and eating.

There are reasons I found the book to be a mixed bag (hence the very middle of the road rating), but they don't have anything to do with either the lack of romance or the privilege. Well, sort of the latter, I guess, because my biggest beef with the book is that there isn't really any conflict. Story structure has remained remarkably consistent over recorded history, which means there are clearly elements that are naturally appealing to people when they're taking in a tale. One of the fundamental pieces of a story is conflict: we want to see our protagonists struggle with obstacles. Frances...doesn't, really. She obliquely mentions that things are expensive, but there's never any indication she has to scrimp or save or go without in order to afford them. She and her husband do a lot of DIY to fix the place up, but the impression is that they enjoy doing it, and don't need to do it for money's sake. It all just seems to roll along...they find the house, they buy it, they do gradual repairs, they start spending a lot of time there, they make new friends, and they're happy. Which must be lovely to experience, but pretty boring to read about.

What saves it from being a total snooze is the writing. Mayes is a poet, and it shows. It's beautifully written, and the way she writes lets you see with your mind's eye the lawn at Bramasole with the bright yellow table she had painted, loaded with fresh and simple but delicious food, looking out on the olive trees and flowers and rolling hills. There's an enjoyable element of wish fulfillment fantasy...very very few people will ever get to live the kind of dreamy life she shows us (I have no doubt there were and are less wonderful elements behind the scenes, but she doesn't go into them), so it gives us a window into what seems like an incredible experience. But I had trouble focusing on it because I was honestly mostly bored after about the first 100 pages or so.

Tell me, blog friends...have you ever been to Italy?

One year ago, I was reading: To Die For


  1. Hahaha It's funny, what first drew me into reading the post is that I LOVE the movie! Then again, I've always been a bit of an imaginary travel fiend... I love the idea of visiting Italy, but the practical application is a little bit more difficult. :)

    1. Italy is amazing, but I've only been able to go because of parental generosity. I've got my own imaginary travel schedule: I really want to visit Vienna and Prague and Budapest!

  2. What do you think? Is it a readable book with online dictionary for a B1+ level level student who loves reading books and saw the movie?