When I first started talking about my reading project to others, people started popping out of random places (closets, cabinets, sewers, and so on) to tell me about their favorite travel books. I think this is great, as referrals are lovely and mean that a book made a positive impression on its reader.
Enter recommendation: A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle.
The lady who suggested A Year in Provence said that it was her favorite travel book of all time, that she had read it at least a decade ago and it was just the best. So when I made the misstep of walking into my favorite used bookstore and walked out with twenty or so books, it was among their number.
I loved it. Mayle has that dry British humor that can do no wrong for me. I giggled and snorted my way through its pages and was suddenly, rapidly done.
I knew the end was coming. I’m not an eReader kind of person. The book was shifting its scant weight from my right hand to my left and the chapters, separated by months, were moving into November, December, then done.
And it was done. The story wrapped itself up nicely, left basically from where we entered. All very clean.
It was too short for me. Each month felt more like a few days, possibly a week at best. The twelve month span seemed more like a month and a half. Everything zoomed at such a rapid pace, meals were consumed, walls were knocked down and rebuilt, and I swear it was only February.
But it was not.
I’m not sure if I like this. I feel like travel books should have a certain weight to them. This felt more like a travel summary–a quick-flipped, highly entertaining, well-written travel summary–more than a travel log.
Which is what you want sometimes.
But Mayle was so deft and charismatic with his writing, the end felt like an abandonment. That there was so much more that he could have told (things that he alluded to, certainly) that were left unwritten–or perhaps deleted by a zealous editor who knew the market needed something lightweight at the time.
There are a few things I want to say.
A Year in Provence won The British Book Awards “Best Travel Book of the Year” in 1989 or 1990, depending on where you reference.
If you open the inside flap, you’ll see that it is classified as a regional book (Provence) and a, if I remember correctly (I, unfortunately, lent this book to my mother yesterday, and thus no longer have it) “French Life” book. Or something like that.
The backside of the book, however, says “TRAVEL” in the upper left corner.
For those of you who haven’t had the joy of reading it, A Year in Provence is the story of… a year in Provence. Startling, I know.
More specifically, it is Peter Mayle’s recounting of the trials, tribulations, feasts, drunken afternoons, and ridiculousness that occurred during the first year of his and his wife’s residency in Provence. He tells stories of their food adventures, their wine adventures, their neighbor adventures, and their construction adventures. Sometimes they take their car to a neighboring area, visit for a page or two, then return home to bask poolside and deal with their friendly hounds.
I wouldn’t call this a travel book, per se.
As there isn’t actually any real travel occurring in the book. Page one opens with them already in Provence and, by the last page, they are still in Provence.
Yet it won “Best Travel Book of the Year.”
This genre is a mess.
Is it a travel story if no travel takes place? If I moved from Los Angeles to Minneapolis and wrote “A Year in Minnesota,” reflecting on Minnesotan food, customs, and my occasional romps around the state, would it be shelved in the “USA – Travel” section at Vroman’s?
A Year in Provence is a memoir. A delightful memoir. There is a transformational character arc in both Mayles by the end of the book: they have changed from rigid(ish) Brits to French-loving, wine-loving, and food-loving expats.
When I talk about my road-trip travel book, I get asked the same several questions over and over. Doesn’t matter who I tell about it.
- Where did you go?
- What was your favorite place/state/thing you saw?
- Weren’t you scared?/Were you ever scared?
- What changed in you?/How did you change?/Did you come home different?
I do not know about other cultures, but I do know that Americans place a mystique on American road-trips that they do not seem to place on any other sort of trip. I went backpacking around Europe for two months. I ran around northern India for a week. I spent, over the course of two years, seven months in Japan. With each trip and each return, I’ve been asked questions 1 – 3 over and over. Never #4.
I came back from the road and people began sniffling at me like your pets do after you’ve been gone on an extended vacation, trying to remember who you are. But they were checking to see if I was different, and were shocked to find I was basically the same, only a bit more educated.
Which was the point.
When I talk to other writers about my book, they want to know my character arc. The Big Lesson I learned about myself or the country. The Point of the Novel. My Transformation That Will Lead Readers Into Their Own Journeys of Transformation.
The experience has left me… something. Discontent. Frustrated.
Until I started reading other travelogues and finding that a travelogue is sometimes just a travelogue. Sometimes a writer just wants to share an experience without having to insert a personal transformation of the highest order.
In sum: loved A Year in Provence. Gave it to my mom. It’s a memoir, not a travel book. Not at all regretting reading it. Will continue moving through my travel to-read list, trying to understand this genre. Confetti and donuts for everyone.