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Frances Mayes'
Under the Tuscan Sun:
At Home in Italy

Reviewed by
Deborah Lightfoot Sizemore

Surprising one's life

Shortly before my husband and I packed up and headed to Mexico in 1997, I discovered Frances Mayes's Under the Tuscan Sun. Mayes's memoirs of buying and restoring an ancient stone house in Italy proved to be one of those serendipitous finds that fills a need heretofore unrecognized. Just as I was beginning the greatest adventure of my life—full-time residency in a foreign country—there fell into my hands this beautifully written book by another who had taken the same kind of plunge, and for many of the same reasons.

In fact, with their purchase of a long-abandoned stone structure in Tuscany, Mayes and her husband jumped into deeper waters than Gene and I did. At least our house in Jalisco, Mexico, was fully modern and needed no restoration; we just moved in, plugged in, and started living the life we'd dreamed of.

Mayes, however, faced the nightmare prospect of a long-distance restoration: Italian workmen gutted and renovated their new multistory home during one long winter, while Mayes and her husband remained in San Francisco tending to their jobs as university professors. If you've ever had major work done to your house, you can imagine their near-panic as they tried to monitor and supervise the work by phone and fax from several thousand miles away.

The first half of Under the Tuscan Sun follows their adventures in restoration, a combination of comedy and tragedy as they wrangle with the emotional Italians to finally get the house they'd envisioned. If you like This Old House on PBS, you'll love Mayes's detailed account of work done, undone and redone.

My favorite part of the book, however, is the half in which she tells of touring the Italian countryside, discovering the out-of-the-way places that are within driving distance of their new home. If you've been to Italy or longed to go, you'll eat up the chapters on Etruscan tombs, Roman roads, forest paths, churches great and small, high town walls with gates that once kept out hordes of Ghibellines and Guelfs, and narrow streets branching off of crowded piazzas.

And the food—for page after page, Mayes writes of shopping for fresh fruttas e verduras, cooking lavish meals for two and twenty, trying new recipes, and adapting to local ingredients the family recipes of her Georgia upbringing. Unless your tongue's been cut out, your mouth will water at the glowing descriptions of Italian food. I hate to cook, and yet I photocopied several of Mayes's simpler-sounding recipes to carry with me on twice-weekly trips to San Luis Soyatlan's produce market. Why not attempt Italian cooking with Mexican ingredients? The two countries, after all, are not so far apart in latitude or culture.

The similarities between Mayes's experiences in Italy and mine in Mexico drew me to this book as a nectar-filled flower draws a hummingbird. Mayes writes of "exploring the layers and layers of Tuscany and Umbria; cooking in a foreign kitchen and discovering the many links between the food and the culture—these intense joys frame the deeper pleasure of learning to live another kind of life. . . . life must change from time to time if we are to go forward in our thinking."

Like Mayes and her husband, Gene and I felt "the desire to surprise our own lives." We left behind comfortable predictability and sought to live another kind of life, one that brings daily adventures, surprises, and discoveries. For me, perhaps the most welcome change was the simplest: Like Mayes in her Italian rose garden, I in my airy Mexican house have reveled in "long days with birdsongs instead of the sound of the telephone."

—First published in the Winter 1998 Friends News, a publication of Friends of the Fort Worth Public Library, Inc.