Tag Archives: Frances Mayes

Every Day in Tuscany – Frances Mayes

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A staycation is the summer option this year and I decided to spend part of mine in Tuscany. Frances Mayes obligingly produced a book of daily reminiscences and daytrips that chronicles the seasons in Cortona. Her celebrated Bramacole, the restored house in Cortona that was the setting for two previous books, is the center of this story but she also restores a thirteenth-century stone cottage up on a mountain overlooking Cortona. The old place is a tumble-down ruin that becomes a retreat in a wilder part of the countryside. That doesn’t stop her from building a hive-shaped pizza oven in the yard and entertaining hordes of friends in the open, hospitable Tuscan style.

Mayes writes poetically and rapturously about food, wine–lots of wine, flowers, day and night skies, her gardens and the piazzas of the towns she lives in and visits.  Her excursions take her to churches and museums in search of paintings by a “local” Renaissance artist, Luca Signorelli, and to picture-postcard Italian tourist icons like Portofino where she and her husband stay in an apartment owned by a friend.

A terrorist warning–a real grenade (not live it turns out) with an ugly note left on her property–shakes her faith in her Tuscan idyll and has her thinking about selling out. But, conversely, the incident and its aftermath reveal deeper layers of the life of Cortona and act as a sort of baptism, annointing her as an insider, after seventeen years. Life in Tuscany is never so sweet as when it is bittersweet.

It is tempting to see all this travel and wine-tasting and strolls in the hills as the trappings of privilege, unappealing in an era which is so hard on dreams and so relentlessly serving up hardship. But Mayes isn’t the least smug about her lovely life. The roof leaks and should really be redone. The screens flap. An owl invades the attic and spiders scuttle across the kitchen. The neighborhood is much noisier than one might expect, or want. Mayes is frank about some uncharming aspects of her life as well as unfailingly appreciative of the small and large moments that delight her.

This Tuscany isn’t at all neat but it’s very civilized, nonetheless. Life is slower, deeper, richer. People are more connected and caring in the intimacy of a small place where families have lived for half a millenniun.  Mayes knows how to drop out, savor a brodetto, a grappa, an uninterrupted dive into a good book, a meal with two dozen friends. It’s very personal travel writing. She describes both meticulously and imaginatively and makes no secret of her love affair with all (most) things Tuscan. A peaceful, hassle-free armchair excursion–pity I can’t hop on a plane, restore a ruin or two and lift a glass of prosecco myself.

Every Day in Tuscany: Seasons of an Italian Life   Frances Mayes | Braodway Books 2010

Swan – Frances Mayes

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Swan was a much-needed break from murder and mayhem, although a tragic death is the catalyst for much of the action in the book. Frances Mayes has written a smart story full of smart, literate, thoughtful people who happen to be as eccentric as any true southerners.

Ginger Mason and her brother J.J. were devastated when 11-year old Ginger discovered the bloody corpse of her mother on the kitchen floor of their house in Swan, Georgia. Swan is one of those places that exists, lush and ancient, in a pocket of the deep South, clinging to its old ways, kindnesses and cruelties. Ginger fled, eventually, to Italy to work on an Etruscan archaeological dig. Marco is the archaeologist who wins her heart but even he can’t compete with disturbing news from Swan that sends Ginger back across the Atlantic to her family and its ghosts.

J.J., once considered to be headed to medical school to follow in his father’s footsteps, spends his time hunting and fishing in the swamps and bayou, collecting old arrowheads and carved fishing spears from the Creek Indians who once inhabited the area. He disappears for days and weeks at a time, as he has since the day their mother was declared a suicide and their father began the two years of steady drinking that would lead to a stroke and life in a nursing home.

The story tracks what happens when their mother’s grave is vandalized, dumping her mostly preserved body out in the mud of the graveyard. The crime opens all the old wounds and exacerbates the losses. The aunt who raised the two children is one of the women who discovers her sister-in-law’s body and is thoroughly unnerved. But her agitation has as much to do with a sense of guilt as it does with shock.

Past secrets can’t remain buried once the corpse is exposed and a routine inspection of the body reveals another shocking truth. Ginger and J.J. try to cope with the onslaught of new knowledge and old pain. They use the haunts of their childhood to soothe the damage and the strain of dealing with their quirky family, longtime help and the citizenry of tiny Swan, Georgia in which privacy is a foreign concept and memories are long.

Swan is beautifully written—a real pleasure to read. The characters are intelligent, not oafish or superficial. I’ve never read Mayes’ well-known Tuscany books but I might check out one or two for the pure enjoyment of reading such fluent and rewarding writing.

Swan   Frances Mayes | Broadway Books   2002