Under the Tuscan Sun
In 1990 Frances Mayes and her partner Ed finally found their perfect home on a steep hillside near the small town of Cortona in Tuscany. They both were professors at universities in the San Francisco area living in a flat there. They didn't give up their jobs, just bought this house as their summer and holiday home. It's a fixer upper - wow, is it a fixer upper.
This is Frances' journal of the first three or four years as they fixed up the very old stone house and property. Their first summer the house was barely habitable. They started cleaning inside and clearing and pruning on the outside. They hire contractors to do the first major interior restoration and upgrade work. But they will be back in San Francisco when the work is done. They should have a comfortable Christmas back in Tuscany.
Home fix-up projects rarely go as planned. That's especially true of old, solid stone homes as Frances and Ed learn. Slowly their home takes shape. They spend their holidays and the summers working on their new home. After a few years they finally have the house and acreage in the shape Frances envisioned from the start. They had to shore up the terrace wall by the house to hold up the property on the terrace above. They had to replace and modernize the plumbing as well as modernize and hide the electrical wiring. They knocked up walls and restructured the rooms.
Under the Tuscan Sun is more than the chronicle of the house and property restoration. Frances Mayes also tracked other parts of her life in Tuscany. She paints vivid pictures of the food, its preparation, the vineyard, the olive tree orchard, the gardens, the flowers, and the people there around Cortona. She describes finding Etruscan ruins in her own orchard, traveling around the countryside and exploring tomb after tomb. There's the balmy weather, the overwhelming heat, and the chilly winters (after living in San Francisco they'd forgotten how cold winter can get).
This is not written like a novel or a travelogue or autobiography. It is an chronological organization of her journals - stories of the restoration, then the food (including recipes), the people who they meet, then back to the restoration, and on. It isn't exciting nor does it build suspense. Instead it's Frances and Ed's journey through their first few years in Tuscany. What they had to do in the house is amazing. Their final result made it all worthwhile for them. They produced a wonderful vacation home; they have a place to retreat and relax between their busy semesters in San Francisco.
Why do I keep repeating the type of writing? Because I found Under the Tuscan Sun slow many times as I was reading. I liked the images she gives the reader, but couldn't stick with them for very long at any time. The only parts I skipped over were the recipes, although there are a couple I'd like to try. Yet if it weren't for the fact we were discussing the book at my book club, I might not have finished it.
No, Under the Tuscan Sun is nothing like the movie of the same title. But I knew it wouldn't be. I knew when the movie was produced that it was a fictionalized, different version of the book. So that wasn't my problem while reading the book. I liked the pictures Frances kept showing. I just couldn't stay with it before wanting a break.
There are some scenes that held my interest. I found it interesting when she describes picking their olives and then taking them in to have their own olive oil made. I don't eat olives often (except in New Orleans' muffalattas) and didn't realize the fruit couldn't be eaten straight from the tree. It needs processing first - whether crushed for oil, soaked in brine or through other preservation methods.
Frances Mayes has written an interesting book. But it doesn't read easily. If you like action and a story arc, this isn't the book for you. If you're looking for lyrical descriptions of a beautiful sounding area of Europe, you'll appreciate Under the Tuscan Sun.
These reviews are personal opinions only and in no way reflect other readers' opinions of the books discussed.
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