Armchair Traveller: Under the Tuscan Sun

Some twenty years ago, Frances Mayes bought an abandoned villa near Cortona, Italy. She and her husband spent three summers renovating it, and then she wrote a book. The travel memoir genre has never been the same since.

Published in 1996, Under the Tuscan Sun was on the New York Times Best Sellers List for over two and a half years. In 1998, I spent a week with a friend who was studying art in Siena for the summer. She was reading the book. All of her classmates were reading the book. Every bookstore I walked by that week had Under the Tuscan Sun on display in its window. In the aftermath of the book’s success (as well as that of Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence a few years earlier), there’s been a rush to publish hundreds, if not thousands, of memoirs about ex-pats buying and restoring houses all along the Mediterranean. The saturation of the genre may be the reason for some of the criticism levied today against authors like Mayes and Mayle. The truth is: ex-pats were buying up property in southern Europe long before these two authors. They simply came up with the idea of writing about it ― and they did it brilliantly.

Mayes starts her book off as a love poem to Tuscany, and to the home described as “a house and the land it takes two oxen two days to plow” in the legal documents she and her husband signed upon purchase. She describes evenings “when the light turns that luminous gold I wish I could bottle and keep.” She includes recipes, and to show her growing interest in the cuisine of the region, she writes paragraphs such as these:

… cooking seems to take less time because the quality of the food is so fine that only the simplest preparations are called for. Zucchini has a real taste. Chard, sautéed with a little garlic, is amazing. Fruit does not come with stickers; vegetables are not waxed or irradiated, and the taste is truly different.

Under the Tuscan Sun has a little bit of everything: interior design, recipes, gardening, history, travelogue. If you’re looking for lots of detail on any one of those subjects, this is not the book for you. But if you think you might enjoy reading how an American poet and creative writing teacher fell in love with a crumbling villa in the middle of Tuscany, then this book is worth a read.

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