Fran and Ed's Excellent Adventure

The author of "Under the Tuscan Sun," husband in tow, crams half a decade's worth of trips into one year.

Washington Post | Sunday, March 19, 2006

A YEAR IN THE WORLD
Journeys of a Passionate Traveller

By Frances Mayes | Broadway. 420 pp. $26

 

In this age of adventure travel, the lure of the increasingly exotic holds sway. It's no longer enough for vacationers to take a barge down a French river or browse in an Italian market -- no, one must rappel in Africa, kayak in Nepal. The activities must be rugged, and the locales far from the Western traveler's starting place. Given this, many travel-hounds will eye the mostly European destinations listed in Frances Mayes's table of contents dismissively.

Mayes, author of the best-selling Under the Tuscan Sun plus three more follow-up odes to her adopted home, lives a blessedly split life -- going back and forth between northern California and Cortona, Italy, which provides her Tuscan sunshine. It is from these bases that she and her husband, Ed, venture forth to the places some will find too familiar -- Scotland, the Greek islands, Naples. But paradoxically, it is just this sticking to well-trod ground that is one of the book's strengths. For although much, much, too much has been written of the wonders of Burgundy, the beauties of Capri and the gardens of England, when Mayes is at her best, she proves the point that a good writer, a good traveler, can always come up with new insights.

Yet they are not the insights one would expect from a book with the title A Year in the World, which implies that Mayes actually spent a year out in the world -- traveling, traipsing, exploring. In reality what she did was string together reports on many trips, taken over a five-year period, to form this collection. Perhaps it doesn't really matter whether the trips were taken all at once or sandwiched in and around the minutiae of everyday life. But a year spent unmoored -- from home and errands and work and the ties that bind -- would have yielded a very different sort of book from this. These trips -- house rentals, hotel stays, even a cruise -- represent a series of vacations, instead of the year-long quest that the title promises.

Mayes was a poet and professor before she became a one-woman Tuscan industry. She's well versed in literature and art history, and obviously relishes reading up on the history of any new part of the world she encounters. When her method works well, as in her section on Mantova, Italy, it's enriching; her talk of the painter Mantegna and of Shakespeare (in English, Mantova is Mantua, where Romeo awaits news of Juliet) and of the powerful ruling Gonzaga family adds depth and texture to her narrative. (You find yourself making a mental note to plan a visit to the city and to re-read "Romeo and Juliet" on the way there.) But when it fails, it's just clunky verbiage -- fact after enumerated fact, layered one upon another in endless succession (towers in Istanbul, wildflowers in Greece: the eyes glaze, the attention wanders).

In Mayes's world, the blues are always "intense," the waters always "limpid." But just when you think you can't stand another minute, she saves herself. A chapter on a cruise through the Greek islands starts out unpromisingly with Mayes explaining that this is no romantic sea voyage, but rather an ordinary, all-buffets-all-the-time cruise on which she has been invited as a speaker. Then the section takes off, as she reveals a seldom-seen aspect of her writing: an acerbic wit. Quickly, she sees what she's in for with this style of group travel, so far from her usual Tuscan Sun mode: "This first day off the ship, I see how the trip will be. We may choose one dish from a whole menu, one sip from a great bottle of wine. One monastery, not ten. The sublime Byzantine icon museum, but not the Archaeology Museum. We'll have a glimpse, a taste, a few impressions to memorize, and then we go back on board, flashing our ID cards, and sail on."

Among Mayes's most thought-provoking passages are the ones in which she faces the least Western cultures of her travels: a visit to the city of Fez in Morocco and another cruise (of a very different sort) in a traditional wooden gulet along Turkey's Lycian coast. Her penchant for historical detail and her keen observer's eye stand her in particularly good stead in these less familiar surroundings. She also does well when she draws back the curtain on her emotional life, notably during the chapter on Scotland, in which she ruminates on friendships over the passage of time. The friends with whom she is sharing her house-rental are of long standing, but seen infrequently now. Her life has changed a great deal, perhaps the most of anyone in the group -- she knows that, she makes the effort to bring the old friends together. Her thoughts here are interesting, real, honestly felt -- unlike those in a section on Taormina, Sicily, when she ponders the connection between land and local character. This latter passage ends up feeling overly intellectualized, a falsely inserted gloss.

And unfortunately, the book ends on another false note, in which Mayes, obviously feeling the need to tie things up in a neat bundle, tacks on a sort of afterword, "The Riddle of Home," in which she speculates that she will someday open a restaurant-auberge-trattoria, to be called the Yellow Café, on her home turf. Not the home turf of Cortona, not the home turf of California, but her original hometown in the good old American South, in Georgia. Where, you see, they are in need of a civilizing influence, an appreciation of intense blues and limpid waters. ·

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