Review: Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes

I was thoroughly dissatisfied with this book. Due to extreme stubbornness, I forced myself to finish it after several grueling days.

What’s wrong with Frances Mayes’ memoir, you may ask. Just about everything. For those who have seen Under the Tuscan Sun (which is an entirely separate entity and must not be confused with this) and enjoyed it, we all know what this story is about by now: American woman buys dilapidated villa in Tuscany, and spends a fortune restoring, decorating, furnishing, and appointing it, while coyly refusing to acknowledge the virtually unlimited financial resources that make all that possible. The author writes mainly about her material acquisitions – the villa, the linens, the pottery, the furniture. Nothing else. It seems sad and strange that this book should be a bestseller. But thanks to a well-chosen title and sharp marketing, she managed to tap into the fantasies of millions of readers, most of whom will never set foot in Tuscany, much less own a villa there.

Mayes tries to be lyrical and profound in her effusions about Tuscany, but instead comes across as shallow, pretentious, self-absorbed, and condescending. Indeed, her book is full of smug, self-congratulatory prose, recipes that I couldn’t be bothered with, and “vacations from her vacation” in Tuscany with her mysterious husband, identified only as “Ed.” When I thought what it is that I find so obnoxious about this book, I realized that a good part of my annoyance comes from its author’s patronizing attitude toward Italians, and her mind-boggling degree of ignorance of Italian culture, religion, art, and history.

She thinks Italians were put on this earth for her personal entertainment – “they’re so quaint, with their funny hand gestures and odd little customs” – people who she as an author is supposed to make an effort to understand, or at least get to know. But they only exist to perform whatever manual labor at her villa she finds too heavy or too tedious, and whatever skilled labor her exacting Martha Stewart standards of decorating demand. At no point does she form any meaningful relationships with Italians – they’re either her household servants, her day laborer-employees, the shopkeepers from whom she makes her unending stream of purchases, or the few snobbish rich people who associate with her only because of her own wealth. She finds the Italian version of Catholicism amusing, and wants a holy water font for home decoration.

Her comments on Italian art are pretentious, poorly informed, and without a single interesting insight. Her “insights” into Italy, its culture, its customs and its people are very superficial, and certainly not from experience, certainly not from a desire or passion to understand. Her one moment of humility comes when she admits her difficulties in learning Italian.

But so what? She doesn’t really need to know Italian. Mayes lives in this insulated dream world where only the very wealthy can afford to build around themselves. There are no interesting people in Mayes’ book – precisely because there’s no one in Italy she’s interested in. Her relationship with Italians are of the depth of someone’s contacts with his plumber, real estate agent, or checkout clerk. She makes up for this by “imagining” the lives of the people she sees – a condescending exercise that violates the integrity of these people’s lives. Even the main characters, her husband, her daughter, mentioned here and there, are merely depicted as roles – poet, gourmet cook, electrician, department chair, mill owner’s daughter, etc. – rather than as real people, i.e., people with emotions, quirks, sorrows and joys.

There’s no word on the tragic swathe that heroin and cocaine addiction has cut through even the smallest and most remote Italian towns, no word about the intractable problem of illegal immigrants flooding the Italian peninsula from Eastern Europe and Africa, although she is happy to hire Polish laborers, implying that they work harder and produce better results than Italians. In passing she mentions the puzzling presence of African prostitutes by a roadside, but then hurries back to her interminable musings on selecting a gardener, or stonemason, or woodworker, trying to make up her mind between tile or marble for the renovation of her many bathrooms, or buying yet another set of antique linens. Very exciting.

Indeed, Mayes describes every step of remodeling her house in painful detail; there was an entire twenty page chapter focusing on the removal and replacement of old linoleum. Do not worry, you are also told — in the same amount of detail — about the disposal of the aforesaid linoleum. Several other lengthy chapters were dedicated to her husband having a custom-made wrought iron gate constructed and installed. Other chapters are dedicated to the reconstruction of a stone wall around their house and, of course, you are told in depth about the various building requirements, tools, workmen, and disposal of any unusable stone. Also, you are allowed the thrill of excruciatingly long chapters dedicated to the remodeling of bathrooms and kitchens which, as we all know, is a subject of endless fascination. As if this is not exciting enough, you receive lengthy dissertations on the author’s shopping trips chronicling everything she bought from bed sheets to silverware. Later, as the excitement builds to a climax, you are then allowed an exhaustive chapter on her cleaning the floors and windows as well as painting the walls. More than once, she would include entire chapters of recipes, which could have been enjoyable if it were included as a bonus at the conclusion of the novel and not an actual part of the story, and thoughtlessly inserted in the middle.

Therefore, if you enjoy three hundred pages of one woman’s struggle against bathroom grout, old linoleum, and bad decorating taste, or, if you are looking for a “memoir” that is faster and more effective than a sleeping pill, then this is the book for you. Readers who have seen and enjoyed the film version seem divided between those who are ecstatic over the book, and those in whom it activated the gag reflex. Count me among the latter.

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