For the second Christmas in a row, I asked for a ten-day holiday at a cooking school in Tuscany, and for the second year in a row my ever-practical wife found a way to indulge my fantasy without emptying our bank account. Last year she pacified me with an Italian cookbook and a bottle of Chianti. This year it was Under the Tuscan Sun (Chronicle Books) by Frances Mayes, a San Francisco poet. Mayes and her partner cashed in all their bonds and purchased a decrepit Tuscan villa which they set about remodelling. She wrote this bestseller to pay for it, piggybacking on the success of Peter Mayles and his books about Provence.
No matter how similar their names, Mayes is quite a different writer than Mayles. Her village locals are less quaint, her reactions to them less glib and the book as a whole less "charming," and I mean that in a positive way. Luckily she does share Mayles's interest in comestibles, so her book is chock-full of evocative passages about food as it is prepared in kitchens with open fireplaces and tile floors, and eaten at long outdoor tables in the setting sun.
For people like me, who travel mainly in the pages of books, this is the perfect alternative to a two-week sprint through Europe. No planes to catch. No intestinal disorder. No language problems. No need to leave the comfort of my own imagination. And by the time I am finished the book, I feel I have finished with Tuscany and am free to plan my next "vacation" in some other memoir.