In the beginning of “Women in Sunlight,” we meet three middle-aged American women. Two of them are widows; the other recently fled a bad marriage. All share a vague urge to start over. So on a whim and barely knowing each other, they move to Italy for an indefinite period.
Sound familiar? Yes, this is a version of “Eat, Pray, Love” for women of a certain age. Call it “Eat, Drink, Nap.” Readers who want sparkling details about great meals in a beautiful setting might consider this agreeable story for a long plane ride.
After all, “Women in Sunlight” is written by Frances Mayes, author of “Under the Tuscan Sun,” the bestselling memoir from 1996 that, like “Eat, Pray, Love,” inspired a lush movie version. And now, in this novel, Mayes once again paints a vivid portrait of her beloved Tuscany. I defy you to read her descriptions of blackberry crostata, rotisserie chicken or semolina gnocci without wondering what’s on your own dinner menu tonight.
If you met these characters at a dinner party, you would find them charming, if oblivious to their pampered existence. There is never, ever a moment’s hesitation over money. They furnish their rental villa with linens, fruit trees, antique garden tools and anything else they desire. One woman spends 1,000 euros on art and poetry books.
And although these three women are expats, there is not a moment of that unifying frustration that all real expats endure: the broken dryer, the dishonest merchant or the terror of getting lost in a place where you do not speak the language. Somehow, Camille, Susan and Julia sail through as if they’ve never once had a hair-coloring disaster or eaten bad street food. Granted, the women are victims of a burglary, but their burglars leave them with a litter of adorable kittens.
Such are the trials in “Women in Sunlight.” Everything is delicious, colorful and charming. All the lanes are lined with cypress trees, all the women are fashionable, and everyone is always stopping for a quick espresso at a cute cafe. When Julia decides to jump off a high cliff, she lands safely in the water. When Susan learns Italian, she is fluent in no time. When Camille returns to her love of art, she is heralded as a new star.
Later, one of them exclaims, “Home. We are at home! We didn’t know we could, would accomplish that.”
Debra Bruno is the author, with Bob Davis, of “Beijing from A to Z: An Expat Couple’s Adventures in China.”
By Frances Mayes
Crown. 432 pp. $27