Mayes' 'Bella Tuscany': the sweet, poignant life

April 11, 1999|By Craig Eisendrath | By Craig Eisendrath,Special to the Sun

"Bella Tuscany: The Sweet Life in Italy," by Frances Mayes. Broadway Books. 286 pages. $25.

A year and a half after her best-selling "Under the Tuscan Sun" (Broadway Books, 1997, 697,000 books in print), Frances Mayes continues her love affair with Italy. Now in her ninth summer in Cortona, a hilltown in rural Tuscany, the poet and professor of creative writing at San Francisco State University practices her craft in rich, sensual descriptions of gourmet meals, fine wines, exquisitely planned gardens, crumbling walls, ancient churches, and the bluest skies in the world.

Mayes' extraordinary sense for visual detail, her veritable hoarding of images, is spiced by her equally acute flair for language. With each brilliant scene or vignette, she gives us the Italian words -- and, at one point, a pocket essay on the language -- which transport us to la bella Toscana. Now and then, Mayes also offers a snatch of history, or an apt literary allusion. Or sometimes, she'll write out a recipe, in case her depiction of an irresistible meal has piqued our hunger and -- can we deny it? -- our envy.

When Mayes leaves her house -- "just" 200 years old -- to travel to nearby towns, or ventures farther afield, as she does with her future husband Ed Kleinschmidt, her descriptions take on the conventional character of a superbly written guidebook. She keeps the reader close beside her as she and Ed negotiate the roads and make arrangements at numerous inns, hotels and restaurants, and then seek out the local churches, paintings and views. Particularly memorable are the couple's extended trips to Sicily and Venice.

The book has poignant moments. When Mayes passes several Nigerian prostitutes standing on the roads near Tuscan Sansepolcro -- she learns they are brought in by the Russian Mafia -- she compares them to the stations of the cross. But then she writes: "Driving home, the women along the road are still out, casing cars as they pass. I can read nothing in their eyes. The tragedy, surely there is one, does not show. We turn off to take a short-cut and are relieved not to pass these women again. There are violets, hawthorne, plum trees, and quince to see . . ." Mayes asks a few questions about the women, but then characteristically drops the subject in favor of more scenes, more sensuous detail.

Despite its extravagantly good writing, and even moments of personal insight, including defining recollections of Mayes' Southern girlhood and a depiction of Ed's mother's death, what Bella Tuscany generally lacks is a sense of purposive life beneath the sensuous surface. With the exception of Mayes herself in her capacity as writer, no one else has any depth. Eventually, this reader, at least, wants to know more about her marriage, her husband and the inhabitants of Cortona; about how the exquisite settings Mayes depicts are the backdrop for real lives or larger events. But Mayes is no Goethe or Henry James. What you see or taste is mostly what you get. Eventually, the sensuous detail becomes excessive and too apparently surface, however expertly described.

Craig Eisendrath served as a United States vice consul in Italy. He is the former executive director of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. Eisendrath is a playwright and historian. As a senior fellow of the Center for International Policy in Washington, he has recently edited "National Insecurity: U.S. Intelligence After the Cold War," to be published this fall by Temple University Press.

Pub Date: 04/11/99

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