When considering memoirs about Italy, what comes to my mind first, is how the word Tuscan became so overly marketed in the US that a friend of mine said, “When I hear the word Tuscan, I think bull shit.”
Behind every “Tuscan cheese stick” in middle America, is the marketing phenomenon of Frances Mayes’ books on Tuscany.
After seven years of success with her first books, Drexel Heritage introduced a “Frances Mayes at Home in Tuscany” furniture collection. A quick google shows me that many other furniture companies also have Tuscan lines.
About the same time as the launch of Tuscan furniture lines, fast food chains got wind that the word Tuscan could sell red rocks to Arizona, and the “Tuscan Salami & Roasted Veggie Artisan Pizza” at Dominos was born.
Can you get further away from an artisan-made product than Dominos?
How about a cheese stick called “Tuscan 6-Cheese and Italian Herb” at Papa John’s? Or “Tuscan chicken sandwich” at Wendy’s which apparently is “Tuscan” because it has an aioli sauce—no matter that sandwiches in Tuscany come with no sauce at all.
No matter that the very premise of fast-food is in complete opposition to the principles of Tuscan cuisine.
This fascinating phenomenon is mostly attributable to the allure of Tuscany brought into American homes in the late 1990s/early 2000s by Mayes’ books, or perhaps more so by the release in 2003 of the movie which is extremely loosely based on her first book.
Lets have a look at Mayes’ little empire of books about Tuscany:
Most memoir writers strive to give their book a narrative arc. According to the experts, memoir is not a journal; it must have a beginning, middle, and an end, much like a novel. The reason Under the Tuscan was called “an unlikely bestseller” is that is has no narrative arc. Instead, it’s a mediation on restoring a house and on the beauty of the Tuscan countryside. There is no tension, no drama, no real hook, only the lure of a slowed down sense of place; and the author’s lyrical and poetic style works well for writing about “place”. While most readers love her way with words, critics deride the book as ego-centristic and entitled.
I was living Silicon Valley when this book came out and where the book was highly popular (particularly with Mayes being based in San Francisco and with all the affluence in the area, which allowed those readers to take sybaritic vacations in Tuscany) and it is clear to me what the book tapped into among a demographic of well-educated, successful, but exhausted North Americans: a yearning they hardly knew they had for a simpler, more peaceful, slower-paced life.
More of the same. Well-written but seemingly not as carefully written as her runaway best seller. Again there is no plot, in fact less so than in Under the Tuscan Sun where the reader perhaps has moments of wondering whether the restoration of Mayes’ house would work out. The skill of Mayes’ prose is to be noted, and yet the amount of reviewers who call the book self indulgent and pretentious is quite high. Unlike the title suggests, the book is not focused only on Tuscany. The reader is led around locations in the US and other regions of Italy, but as we’ve learned, it’s the word “Tuscany” that sells.
A collection of vignettes, recipes and photographs.
A life-style guide coffee-table book for how to bring the now hysterically popular concept of Tuscany into your own home. Photographs, recipes, and more honeyed mediations.
She’s still a gifted writer but this book it is even more like a diary than the first two. Even her diehard fans say that they don’t want to keep reading diary entries where nothing happens. They also complain that the book is disorganized. The inclusion of numerous recipes comes across as filler.
This one is written by both Mayes and her husband (who seems to have taken on her last name). After including recipes so often in her other books, a cookbook was surely inevitable. They have spent enough years delving into Tuscan cuisine to know it well. Trust them please over Dominos, Papa John’s and Wendy’s.
Another little empire of books about life in Tuscany are the three by Ferenc Mate:
Ferenc Mate and his wife create the dream that many of us have: they buy a farm-house in Tuscany, on a whim, and settle into a fairytale life. There is no plot but there is much rhapsodic writing about grapes, olives, mushrooms and meals. Kirkus review determines that apart from Mate’s food descriptions, “his recollections of everything else are little more than hot-air balloons tethered to nothing in particular.” This book is often compared to Under the Tuscan Sun and the general conclusion is that Mate is more wholesome than Mayes.
A decision to try their hand at wine making cause the author and his wife to sell their house and buy 15 acres of land outside the famous wine-centered town of Montalcino. Readers will get lessons in grape-growing and restoration and will be impressed by just how much perseverance is needed to start a winery from scratch. The Mate wines are now getting Wine Spectator points in the 90s. Complimenti!
Now this is something different: it still lauds the Tuscan lifestyle but it does so vis-a-vis the weltschmerz of the modern western world. I’m right in line with his thoughtful look at the predicament we are in— “socially shipwrecked” as he calls it. Tying in to my earlier discussion of fast-food, Mate notes, “…no one I know dreams of fast food chains and strip malls, yet the world is covered with them; hardly anyone dreams of endless suburbs and freeways, yet we’re choking on the stuff. How did it happen that the things no one wants are burying us all, while the simple town we dream of we can seldom find?.” Mate encourages us to “live where we are known” and he advocates the village as the ideal human habitation. This wisdom he’s learned from living in a small Tuscan town resonates for me as a deep truth.
And for an empire of memoirs about Italy we must include Marlena de Blasi who seems about to surpass Mayes in volume:
The author, a chef and food consultant, impulsively leaves her home and her job in the US to marry a Venetian she barely knows. She writes well and her descriptions of Venice and its food are seductive. Italy can indeed be magical but it’s not always a bed of roses and while she does share her struggles to adjust, she leans toward depicting the magical side of her adopted country.
I almost wish when they decided to leave Venice that they chose a region other than Tuscany so those of us avid readers of memoirs about Italy could delve into a region that is less known. This book contains much of the same themes as those by Mayes and Mate: lush food descriptions and anecdotes about the locals. While her first book gave us peaks at her relationship with her new husband, this one, when it tears itself away from food, illustrates their friendship with a local man. The title is misleading as the book covers only a year.
Oh, they’ve now moved from Tuscany to Umbria. They are like spinning tops! Here they renovate a palazzo and the author hopes to insert herself into the rather closed community by inviting people to dinner, thus this book covers what’s now become standard in these memoirs about Italy by foreigners: trials of renovating and sensual descriptions of food.
Now this is different from the standard fare. Here the author becomes part of a “supper club” of local women— the majority of whom do not accept her at first. The book moves slowly but I appreciate that the focus is taken off the author, and the spotlight is instead on the colorful life stories of the local women.
I think she’s about to surpass Frances Mayes in sheer volume. This one is also a deviation from food and renovation (and from what critics call ego-centrism.) It is about a connection that De Blasi forges with a matriarchal Tuscan woman who reveals stories from German occupied Tuscany in WWII.
I still cannot figure out if this is really a memoir. Most readers seem to be confused too, about its veracity. Being unsure that it is really non-fiction I’ll refrain from saying more about it—plus I’ve not read it yet but I heard it’s “magical”.
In the 1990s, before the first Frances Mayes book came out, Tim Parks wrote two memoirs about life in Verona:
Italian Neighbors was followed by An Italian Education. Both are about his life as a Brit, married to an Italian woman, and living in a village outside of Verona. Because his account is much less honeyed than that of Mayes, it’s considered more “realistic.” I tried reading the first one when it came out and while I appreciate his ability to be witty and realistic, he doesn’t open up to the reader, and thus I was not draw in enough to continue. More recently Parks wrote A Season with Verona, about following his home soccer team around Italy. Enthusiastic reviewers say that if love football, you’re in for a treat.
Yours truly (that would be moi) has also written a memoir about Italy—the topic of which is quite a deviation from the standard fare.
Return to Glow takes place on Italy’s ancient pilgrimage route and while this route is becoming incrementally more frequented each year, it is still in its infancy and it’s safe to say that most expats in Italy haven’t heard of it, nor have most people who seek out the next memoir about Italy. (I too, hadn’t heard of it until I began wondering how to walk across Italy, and that was after I’d been coming to Italy for over 20 years and had lived in Florence twice.)
If a memoir about Italy that’s completely off the beaten path appeals to you, and you love to support budding authors, I’d be most honored to gain you as a reader 😃 For paper back, the best deal for me is here. For Kindle go here.