The Sweet Life in Italy
By Frances Mayes
Broadway. 286 pp. $25
A TUSCAN CHILDHOOD
By Kinta Beevor
Pantheon. 271 pp. $24
Reviewed by Nancy McKeon
"Fortunate." That's the opening theme of Bella Tuscany, Frances Mayes's sequel to her 1996 bestseller, Under the Tuscan Sun. "Fortunate that cypress shadows fall in wide bands across the sunlit road . . . Fortunate that yellow blazes of forsythia light the hills. . . . Fortunate."
Fortunate, too, for Mayes that readers have yet to get their fill of memoirs by those adventurous (and lucky) few Americans who have established themselves on this ancient Italic acreage and have begun filing reports back to those of us who only survey the scenery from afar. Mayes's decade-long sojourn began in her last book, with the purchase and restoration of a classic Tuscan farmhouse in Cortona, her summer days given over in equal measure to cooking and managing Italian and Polish workers. It's with fascination and envy that we now watch Mayes continue to sort through the cultural arcana of her new part-time home the way some of us might pluck the plumpest olives from the salad.
Bella Tuscany recounts Mayes's six-month sabbatical in Italy, mostly at her beloved Bramasole, with her friend Ed. "Usually we arrive at the end of May, when it's too late to plant vegetables. . . . We look longingly at the fagiolini, string beans, climbing tepees of bamboo in our neighbors' gardens." Mayes's goal this time: to experience the spring planting season. With Ed -- and Beppe and Francesco and Anselmo -- she attacks the land, adding lavender and sage and roses and olive trees and, yes, vegetables.
But Mayes makes an important discovery about the Italian spring: that it's cold and it's wet. And that those old farmhouses -- built big and thick and dark by long-gone landowners to house several peasant families and their heat-giving farm animals -- are not conducive to the idylls of spoiled Americans until the hot summer sun has baked them for at least several weeks. The result of this discovery is that after a few weeks of touristing around the vineyards of Tuscany, tasting Chianti, Brunello and Vino Nobile, the two Americans bolt for Sicily, where spring arrives somewhat earlier. Some weeks later, in April, they're off to Venice. And so Bella Tuscany is established as more of a travel book than a domestic fantasy, wandering around Sicily's Greek temples, the Veneto, Lake Trasimeno, Arezzo.
There's tons of great garden and kitchen lore: the old women foraging for fresh salad, the fresh beans with a one-week season. Because there's no real narrative to get in the way, Mayes gets to dump her whole purseful of literary, historical and etymological allusions freely, delivering metaphors and musing on being an observer, "a free radical," in an alien culture. Every lizard, every water bucket, every unusual spring green gets squinted at, weighed, lofted into poetry. And there are citations by the Bartlett's-load. Two in particular -- Octavio Paz ("Light is time thinking about itself") followed four pages later by Galileo ("Wine is light, held together by water") -- had this Philistine wondering if maybe Mayes's muse was just calling time out for a stiff drink.
I said there's no narrative, but that's not entirely true. By the end of the book, Mayes and her Ed have got married, Mayes's daughter has got married, Ed's mother has died, and Mayes has bought another fixer-upper, this one in San Francisco. But by this point the reader is either thoroughly fixated on Mayes or has hurled the book across the room -- or perhaps is alternating between the two responses.
Almost 100 years before Frances Mayes embraced the Tuscan landscape, the gentleman painter Aubrey Waterfield stopped by, visiting a crumbling fortification, the Fortezza della Brunella in the Lunigiana hills, owned by a fellow Englishman. Eight years later, in 1903, he took his bride, the writer Lina Duff Gordon, to the fortress on their honeymoon. From the roof of the tower, the young couple watched the sun set behind the peaks of the Carrara mountains and heard the "Angelus" rung down in the valley of the river Magra. They leased, then bought, the place. And in 1916, their 5-year-old daughter, Carinthia "Kinta" Jane Waterfield, later Beevor, came to the castle for the first time.
"It was often said of my parents that they had all the luxuries of life but none of the necessities," Beevor writes in A Tuscan Childhood, her memoir, published in England two years before her death in 1995. The castle was clearly one of those luxuries, and its centerpiece was the garden atop the castle roof, created by hauling basket after wicker basket of soil up to the ramparts.
Aubrey Waterfield spent his days painting and announced dinner by blowing into a conch shell, in the manner of the local shepherds. But as sauvage as the Fortezza was, the Waterfields were no social outriders. They fitted neatly into the class of Englishman that has caused great swaths of Tuscany to become known, somewhat derisively, as "Chiantishire."
Beevor's great-aunt, the writer Janet Ross, owned Poggio Gherardo in Fiesole, high above Florence, said to have been a setting for Boccaccio's Decameron. The villa looked down over I Tatti, home to the art connoisseur Bernard Berenson, "B.B." to the Waterfields and his other friends. Poets and artists of the day were regular houseguests.
Beevor's mother documented this gilt-edged life in her own 1961 memoir, Castle in Italy. The current volume is of quite another species. We see, we feel, the Italy of a child who sleeps naked in a hammock atop a castle, romps barefoot with her beloved brother to toughen their feet, helps walk the old cow, Bruna, to market.
Her parents distracted by their work, Beevor grew up in a below-stairs setting -- or it would have been below-stairs, she points out, if the Italian cooks and farmers and stonemasons who peopled her young world had had any sense of social rank. Rather, they simply absorbed the children into their own world of work. They let them help with the timeless tasks of the Tuscan landscape -- the grape-crushing, the olive-picking, the making of polenta, the milking, the ploughing (both of the last two involving poor Bruna) -- and exposed them to the waning traditions of the charcoal-burners, the shepherds, the outdoor laundresses.
By the time Beevor was sent off to boarding school, she could barely read or write English. And when she says that Parise the shepherd "was our greatest friend" and calls the stonemason Ulisse "our other great friend from those days," I clearly hear the childlike truth in her voice.
To be sure, A Tuscan Childhood is a story told from a distance of some 70 years, no doubt misremembered, romanticized. But this "visitable past," as Mencken called it, at once so modern and so remote, retains its allure. In part perhaps it's because sojourners like Frances Mayes, and we more occasional tourists, can still sense its shadow hovering just beyond our peripheral vision. We taste it, read about it, feel it with inexplicable longing.
And in the last chapters of her book, as Beevor details the shifting of postwar society, the selling of the villa, the bureaucrats' dismantling of the castle garden -- in short, the normalization of the romantic -- she helps us put words to the sense of loss that is the price paid by all who have ever reached out to touch paradise.
Nancy McKeon, The Post's real estate editor, is at work on a memoir of her Italian family.