Under the Tuscan Sun – Frances Mayes

This picture was brought to you by me putting this book on the counter in the middle of Thanksgiving cooking.

As my travel reading for the year draws to a close (and I begin to plan next year’s reading list), I finally reached for Under the Tuscan Sun.

I was very excited to put Under the Tuscan Sun on my reading list, even more excited to be reading it. Why? The obvious answer: I loved the movie. “Under the Tuscan Sun” is one of my go-tos for days that I’m feeling down about life, days where nothing is going right and it seems like that theme is going to continue forever.

To snap myself out of it, I grab my copy, pop it in the DVD player and spend the next two hours watching Diane Lane roam around Italy, redeeming the shit show that her life was becoming. At the end, I always feel refreshed, ready to beat the hell out of whatever is going on in my life–but with grace.

The only things that Under the Tuscan Sun and “Under the Tuscan Sun” have in common are the characters’ names and the location.

The plot of the movie–a newly divorced woman is forced to go to Italy by her two best lesbian friends, decides never to go back to America, and spends the rest of the movie doing things to connect her with herself and her desirability–is nothing like the book. The book doesn’t actually have a plot.

What the book has is massive paragraphs composed of multi-syllable words with Italian words sprinkled liberally in between, coming together to create these magnificent passages of immersion in how the five senses experience a new, highly sensuous country as a seasonal resident.

This is not, as I eventually learned, a fast read.

This is a book that you want to savor, that you want to take slowly, sitting in a patch of sun with your coffee or a plate of biscotti. And a plate of biscotti. This is a book meant for reading in quiet areas, away from the coffee shop or the restaurant.

It’s lovely.

Again, the questions comes up: is it a travel book?

She’s traveling, yes, and she’s exploring, yes. But she’s also setting up a second home. Is setting up a second home in a foreign country considered traveling? At least she is on the move–living in San Francisco and spending the summers and holidays in Italy.

It’s a travel book in the way A Year in Provence is a travel book, where it isn’t, not really, yet it is. But it’s not. Whatever it is or isn’t, I loved both books.

For my own notes, Mayes and my writing styles are very different. I’m very casual, very accessible, concerned with ease of reading, of having tiny paragraphs breaking up the big ones, inserting lists to give the brain a quick breather. Mayes believes in densely rich paragraphs, in linking sense after sense to an idea until nearly the whole page is a block of lovely text.

But we reflect on the same things. On the sense of home. On heredity. On time and history and how things get left behind, how they morph, how history can be right under us, that we build upon it. And I loved that about her.

I want to read more of her books, but I also have so many more authors to read, so many more countries to experience through someone else’s words. Hopefully I’ll get back to her.

Some Mayesian lushness for you:

“I can tell time by where the sun strikes the house, as thought it were a gigantic sundial. At five-thirty, the first rays smack the patio door, routing us out of bed and giving us the pleasure of dawn. At nine, a slab of sunlight falls into my study from the side window, my favorite window in the house for its framed view over the cypresses, the groves in the valley, and out into the Apennines. […] By ten, the sun swings high over the front of the house and stays there until four, when a cut of shadow across the lawn signals that the sun is heading toward the other side of the mountain.”

“Southerners have a gene, as yet undetected in the DNA spirals, that causes them to believe that place is fate. Where you are is who you are. The further inside you the place moves, the more your identity is intertwined with it. Never casual, the choice of place is the choice of something you crave.”

“But the clock repairer in his four-by-six-foot shop under the eleventh-century stairway of the city offices has been there for all this time, though he may now be changing the battery on the Swatch watch of an exchange student. He used to blow the glass and sift the white sand from the Tyrrhenian at Populonia for his hourglasses. He studied the water clocks drip by drop. I never have seen him stand; his back must be a hoop from slouching over the tiny parts for so many centuries. His face is lost behind the lenses he wears, so thick that his eyes seem to lunge forward, As I stop in front of his shop, he is working by the light that always angles in just so on the infinitesimal wheels and gold triangles, the numbers of the hours that sometimes fall off the white face, four and five and nine sprinkled on his table.”

“First of all, it’s very American. Just drive, please. And far and quickly. There’s a strong ‘get me out of here’ impetus behind such trips, even when they’re disguised as ‘seeing the lay of the land so I’ll know the places I want to come back to.’ It’s not the destinations; it’s the ability to be on the road, happy trails, out where no one knows or understands or cares about all the deviling things that have been weighing you down, keeping you frantic as a lizard with a rock on its tail.”

“I recognize the desire to surprise your own life. ‘You must change your life,’ as the poet Rilke said. I stack like ingots all I’ve learned in my first years as a part-time resident of another country. Just the satisfaction of feeling many Italian words become as familiar as English would be pleasure enough: pompelmo, susino, fragola–the new names of everything. What I feared was that with the end of my marriage, life would narrow. A family history, I suppose, of resigned disappointed ancestors, old belles of the county looking at the pressed roses in their world atlases. And, I think, for those of us who came of age with the women’s movement, there’s always the fear that it’s not real, you’re not really allowed to determine your own life.”

“When Ashley and Jess reappear, we drive to the nursery and buy a living tree and a big pot to plant it in. Small as it is, it dominates the living room. Since we have nothing for decoration except a string of white lights, we decided to go to Florence tomorrow and buy a few ornaments, I’ve brought over some candles shaped like stars and some distinctly non-Tuscan farolitos, a Santa Fe custom I’ve kept since spending a Christmas there once and loving the candles in paper bags outlining the adobe houses. There are glazed bags with cut-out stars. We line the front stone wall with a dozen of them and they look magical with their glowing stars. We fill the fireplace overhang with pine cones and branches of cypress Ed cut this afternoon. How easy everything seems and what a pleasure to recover the fun of Christmas. The bowls of ribollita and a fire act as knock-out drops. In the big armchairs, we’re wrapped in mohair blankets, listening to Elvis singing blue, blue, blue Christmas on the CD.”

“Winter food here recalls the hunter stepping in the door with his jacket pockets filled with birds, the farmer bringing in the olive harvest and beginning the cold-weather work of clearing and preparing the trees, trimming back vines for spring. Tuscan food of this season calls for massive appetites. For us, long walks build us up to the hefty dishes that we order in trattorie: pasta with wild boar ragu, lepre, hare, fried mushrooms, and polenta. The rich smells drifting from our kitchen are different in the winter. The light summer fragances of basil, lemon balm, and tomatoes are replaced by aromas of succulent pork roast glazed with honey, guinea hens roasting under a layer of pancetta, and ribollita, that heartiest of soups. Subtle and earthy, the fine shavings of Umbrian truffle over a bowl of pasta prick the senses. At breakfast, the perfumed melons of summer are forgotten and we use leftover bread for slabs of French toast spread with plum jam I made last summer from the delicate coscia di monaca, nun’s thigh, variety that grows along the back of the house. The eggs always startle me; they’re so yellow.”

If you made it all the way down here, I just need to point out the above paragraph. She’s describing sights (the hunter with birds in his pockets), smells (the entire middle section), and inferring/inspiring/reminding tastes (the middle and the end). I find that most descriptions are sight- and touch-based, so to read an entire book that primarily calls on smell and taste is an entirely new and welcome experience.