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#29: Diane Lane is not invited.

13783207Under the Tuscan Sun is a difficult book to review. I should start by saying that it has nothing in common with the by-the-numbers rom-com movie - the book, in fact, has no plot of which to speak. It's pure atmosphere, pure place - a run-down mansion in Tuscany which the author and her husband set about renovating. The renovation is an eternal work in progress, though, and so there's no real story progression, no B we're trying to get to from A. Frances Mayes's purpose in writing the book is simply to share with the reader the good times she and her family has there - enjoy a sunbathed summer afternoon among the lush and overgrown gardens of her manor; wander the back roads of her piece of Tuscan country, strewn with wildflowers and Etruscan ruins; come with the author as she and her kin shop Florence downtown and prepare dinner together on Christmas Eve.

The prose is gorgeous. I haven't seen the movie, but I feel that turning this book into something so off the shelf seems a grievous slight to it. It's one of the most beautiful books I've read, a stream-of-consciousness suffusion of imagery:

"I love the heat. I love the excessive insistence. Something in me says yes. Maybe it's only that I grew up in the South, but it feels like a basic yes, devolving back to those old fossil heads of the first people who came into being under a big sun."

"Last year's gold-orange roses open to flagrant size, the rash colors contributing to their beautiful vulgarity. Now we have a line of roses all along the walk up to the house, with lavender planted between each one. I'm coming to believe in aromatherapy. As I walk to the house through waves of scent, it's impossible not to inhale deeply and feel an infusion of happiness."

"The heat breaks with a fast rain, a pelting determined rain that soaks the ground then quits - gone, finished. The green landscape smears across the windows. The sun bounces back out but robbed of its terror now. Here, the edge of autumn. What is it? The smell of leaves drying. A sudden shift to the air, a slightly amber cast to the light, then a blue haze hanging over the valley at evening. I would love to see the leaves turn, pick up the hazelnuts and almonds, feel the first frost and build a little olive wood fire to take the chill off the morning."


Our perspective alternates between the vast workings of the primal forces of nature and the author's small, private sensual experiences of them. Mayes may be concerned with repairing a house, but man is not the master here; all human activity ultimately falls to living with, compromising with, and basking in nature's bounty. I savored Under the Tuscan Sun one chapter a day; it's a wonderful summer idyll.

One thing that held me back, however, is the author's extraordinary privilege. In a way, she's not spoiled - she's not shy of work and gladly gets in the trenches to renovate her dream home. She talks blithely, though, about being tended hand and foot by black servants in her Southern-manor childhood and chronicles the million-dollar price tags of her mansions without reserve. It might be unfair to ask her to downplay her upbringing and wealth, but she doesn't seem to recognize how most of us can't relate to such material and might even be offended by it. The book is only lightly peppered with such incidents, but they were a significant drawback for me, and I would understand if a reader chose to bail because of them.

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