When I looked into choosing Under The Tuscan Sun as my next Blogging For Books selection, I couldn’t believe that the book was actually published in 1996 and that it is now being released in a 20th Anniversary Edition. I was a bit skeptical of whether the descriptions of Italian life would feel authentic to me, coming from a foreigner, but I immediately fell in love with Frances Mayes’ writing and points of view on Italian culture. She’s really intent on learning as much as she can about Italian traditions and on immersing herself in the authentic life of the small Italian town she lives in.
I decided to watch the movie based on the book and starring Diane Lane and Raoul Bova (if you don’t know who Raoul Bova is, do yourself a favor and Google him). It came out in 2003 and to be honest felt over-caricatured and quite dated. The book in comparison still feels fresh and applicable to the current reality of Italian life in small towns in the Tuscany countryside. Another major difference between the book and the movie is that in the movie, Diane Lane’s character is recently divorced and travels alone to Tuscany to restructure Bramasole (the old house she’s bought), and hopefully also find love. In the
book, on the other hand, Frances Mayes is actually remarried and restructures Bramasole with the help of her new husband Ed. I just wanted to specify for people who loved or hated the movie, that the memoir has a completely different feel and even a different storyline. It stands apart from the movie and is worth a read for its own merits.
Under The Tuscan Sun
Published: September 1, 1996
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
Frances Mayes—widely published poet, gourmet cook, and travel writer—opens the door to a wondrous new world when she buys and restores an abandoned villa in the spectacular Tuscan countryside. In evocative language, she brings the reader along as she discovers the beauty and simplicity of life in Italy. Mayes also creates dozens of delicious seasonal recipes from her traditional kitchen and simple garden, all of which she includes in the book. Doing for Tuscany what M.F.K. Fisher and Peter Mayle did for Provence, Mayes writes about the tastes and pleasures of a foreign country with gusto and passion.
What I Liked
The writing. I didn’t know that Frances Mayes was a poet but it’s a reality that rings through in every line of Under The Tuscan Sun. Her writing is lyrical, sensuous and tactile – the reader really feels like he or she is standing alongside Mayes on the terrace of her house early in the morning, reading a book and sipping an Espresso, or walking with Mayes along the garden terraces surrounding Bramasole. Having just left Italy a few weeks before starting to read Under The Tuscan Sun, I really felt that Mayes brought my country and the people in that region of Tuscany to life in a very authentic and vivid way. The structure of the book, written as a series of essays or journal entries, and Mayes’ origins as a poet reminded me of May Sarton’s journals in which she also beautifully reflects on the details of everyday life. Among May Sarton’s journals I would above all recommend The House By The Sea. Sarton’s writing is quieter than Mayes and there’s less activity to it, but their tone and writing style are similar.
The food descriptions and recipes. As any good Italian, I’m a lover of all food and of the art of cooking itself. So much of Mayes’ writing in Under The Tuscan Sun is focused on her excursions to Cortona to buy sublimely in season ingredients at its open air markets, then returning to Bramasole to turn them into simple but delicious sounding roasts, desserts and salads. I really appreciated that Mayes included the recipes for many of the dishes she described at the end of two of the chapters in her memoir. Two that I’ll definitely have to try are Risotto With Red Chard and Bruschette With Pecorino And Prosciutto. In fact, Mayes shares my love of putting just about anything on toasted bread – a woman to my own heart. I also really liked that Mayes brought the focus back to the taste and origin of the food she prepares and eats in her memoir. I think part of U.S. culture is an obsession with counting calories and dieting, and we’re all a bit more focused on our nutrition or weight-loss goals since it’s the beginning of a new year. It was nice to be reminded that food is a pleasure and should be treated first and foremost as such, and as long as you live an active lifestyle and are eating fresh ingredients, the calories will take care of themselves.
The storyline of the restoration of Bramasole. In addition to being a toast addict, I’m a bit of an HGTV addict as well, in part influenced by the fact that my father owns a construction company in Italy. I really enjoyed reading Mayes’ descriptions of her dealings with different construction managers and crews and her difficulty in trying to keep them to their original time schedules. I have to say my father’s construction company in Milan does operate on time, but it’s not abnormal for Italian construction workers to promise unrealistic completion schedules only to have to significantly extend them. I also really loved the details about Mayes and her husband’s work in restoring Bramasole’s gardens. I’m interested in urban gardening and subsistence farming, so I found the details of how they brought their olive trees back to life and were finally able to have the olive pressed into Bramasole’s own olive oil absolutely fascinating.
What I Didn’t Like
Occasionally repetitive. Due to the memoir’s format as a collection of essays or journal entries, occasionally Mayes covered the same topic twice, whether it was a recipe, a story about a particular character in the town or an event she participated in. These repetitions marred the flow of the story, and in fact the memoir’s structure as separate essays also made the chapters feel a bit disconnected.
Sensuous, delicious, nearly edible memoir of a foreigner’s efforts to authentically fit in to life in the small Tuscan town of Cortona and to bring back a beautiful Italian villa to its former splendor.
Have you read Under The Tuscan Sun or any of Frances Mayes other books? What did you think of them? Let me know in the comments.
You can also read other recent reviews on the blog including for astronomy related titles Hidden Figures by Margot Shetterly and The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel, medical memoir Working Stiff by Judy Melinek MD and T.J. Mitchell, or thriller The Twilight Wife by A.J. Banner.
Please note this post contains affiliate links from Book Depository. I received a review copy of Under The Tuscan Sun’s 20th Anniversary edition from Blogging For Books in exchange for an honest review.