Monday, April 10, 2017

Hurricane Frances: A review of "Every Day in Tuscany: Seasons of an Italian Life"

If you love the Tuscan Sun series, avert your eyes, go back to your glass of wine, and carry on with celebrating the grand panorama of life. Do not read further unless you can relate to a cranky writer having an allergic reaction to a good idea that went bad. This, then, is my review of Every Day in Tuscany, a book by Frances Mayes.

First, let me say that Frances is a talented writer and a good poet. Her turns of phrase are often quite charming and interesting. Of garlic, she says, "How tightly the papery crescent moons fit together to form a neat miniature mosque dome." And she describes Vin Santo as "Thanksgiving afternoon by the fire, a cashmere throw over my legs, lines of a poem running through my head." And she has some good one-liners, like "Love, I know, spares you nothing" and "Though not built in a day, Rome can be absorbed in a few hours: buildings, ruins, streets, the sound of bells, colors imprinting forever inside the mind of the blissful observer." And my favorite, "If you are dead in Italy, you are not as dead as you could be."

But when tasked with sticking to a time continuum and a plot, a poet will often fall short. And this book is dizzyingly painful in the way it switches from past to present, the American South to Italy, from one family to another who show up for a dinner and never appear again, from one vacation to another, from her main house to her mountain house. I can hardly tell from one page to the next where I am or how I should find meaning in a life that is over-saturated with detail and underfunded in emotional impetus. I realize she is not trying to write a novel. But the recounting of a year's life must have some rhyme and reason to it. If it doesn't, a good editor will find a way to make it so.

Here is an account of my increasing frustration as Hurricane Frances hit town:

One page 40, after the retelling of a baffling dream, buying a second cottage, meanderings about a painter, cappuccino in the piazza, trying a new liqueur, a recipe for ravioli, a description of getting into bed, a rainy day, ruminations about Florence, a wine tasting, a day trip to Urbino, and a drive to Loreto, I felt vaguely dizzy.

On page 60, after more scenes of art, rain, kale soup, how to iron clothes with your hands (yes, really), and a paragraph about repairing terracotta pots, my eyelid began twitching.

On page 72, after hinting that she's decided to write about something awful that shook her sense of well-being, I wrote in the margin, "Is this what the book is about? It's page 72, people!"

On page 78, after it is revealed that the big trauma she alluded to is, in fact, not much of a trauma, but rather a skirmish with a local who she has angered, she says of the police officers who came, "I can't help but notice how sharp they look in their summer blue shirts, black pants, with big guns strapped around their waist." I wrote in the margin, "Really, girl?"

On page 119, when writing about her second Italian home in the hills, she says, "This is where I came for comfort when we experienced at Bramasole our own private terrorist incident. This is where I come now for the pure joy of loving a place so purely itself." I felt a stabby pain in my eye. You mouthed off to a local, got an unpleasant surprise in your mail, and nothing else came of it. But you must seek succor at your second country home because your first country home is no longer an idyllic paradise? I wrote "insufferable" in the margin. Much like Martha Stewart, she seems to have lost touch with the basic reality of most of her readers.

On page 126, when describing the twentieth set of friends featured in the book who have nothing to do but lounge around in their countryside homes, she writes, "Today we are going to Fonterutoli in Montalcino with...the Pantes, good San Francisco friends who have a home here and entertain magnificently with the best of Tuscan wines." I again wrote, "insufferable." I appreciate and respect people who know good wine, and I will break bread with paupers or millionaires, but not when they're described like that. 

On page 142, when she worries that they might not have enough money to replace the roof of their main house, I stabbed the margin with my pen, "These people have spent an elephant's fortune on wine, vacation, and renovating their second house, but they can't afford to fix the roof?!!" I had the distinct, unhappy thought that she might've published this book because she needed money to fix the roof.

On page 191, when she trails off into another description of art by Signorelli, I scribbled in desperation, "Dear God, this woman cannot maintain a narrative to save her life." Like one of the scurrilous wild boars she mentions tearing up her lawns, I became wild-eyed and prone to snorting and stamping my hooves.

Had this book been a visual affair, with pictures, illustrations, far less vignettes, and a clear emphasis on season, I believe the author really would have shined. By inundating me with how magnificent, how perfect, how picturesque Tuscany is for wealthy foreigners, the book completely turned me off the idea of going. Maybe that was her plan. To preserve the sanctity of the Tuscan countryside by alienating middle-class Americans. If so, touché, Frances, touché.

While this book was not my cup of tea (or glass of pinot noir, if you will), I would still recommend the Tuscan Sun Cookbook.

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