Book Simple: Under the Tuscan Sun Revisited
a blogumn by Amy Brown
I’ve been invited to a book club. To preface, I’m desperately eager to meet new people in this new city of mine; Washington, D.C. seems endlessly foreign to me since I’ve moved, a city with free parking unassociated with shopping malls, with subways, a city where there is an assumption you’ll head out to the bar after a day at work rather than to the beach for a volleyball match. It’s a very different place than Los Angeles. I haven’t quite gotten my sea-legs.
So when a friend from my younger years with whom I’ve been so lucky to catch up invited me to her book club, I jumped at the chance to meet some fellow young professionals. “We’re reading light fiction,” she insisted, “for summer. Nothing too strenuous – you don’t even have to read it if you don’t want to.” This piqued my interest; what book is too embarrassing to force a friend to read?
It’s Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes. “But I’ve read it!” I exclaimed with glee. “I’m all set.” And it’s true, I have read the book. In middle school, when travel porn was having a fashionable resurgence, I would eagerly consume whatever was the latest Peter Mayle Province book. I even managed the slog through Henry James’s Italian Hours, which could put Ambien out of business. Travel to the earth’s lovelier regions replaced my disturbing obsession with Star Trek spin-off fiction.
These books nursed a longing within me to live in the golden countries they described in violently purple prose. It would be six years, though, before I’d get to discover that travel abroad usually resembles Me Talk Pretty One Day far more closely than it does A Year in Provence.
I picked up Mayes’s novel again out of a sense of obligation. Surely it couldn’t be as utterly vapid as I remembered thinking when I was sixteen. Flipping through the introduction, though, I found this gem: “Old places exist on sine waves of time and space that bend in some logarithmic motion I’m beginning to ride.” This is why there should be an ordinance preventing humanities instructors from using mathematical terms.
It’s actually worse than I remembered. Mayes’s horribly snotty narrative voice presents every interaction with the Italian people through a veil of entitled xenophobia. The wealth that allows Mayes and her boyfriend to purchase Bramasole goes completely unexamined. “I write checks,” notes Mayes, “my fingers cramping over all the times I write milione. I think of all the nice dependable bonds and utility stocks and blue chips from the years of my marriage magically turning into a terraced hillside and a big empty house.” Our fearless leader outlines the opportunity cost of this exchange in terms of the number of shoes she could purchase instead.
Immediately upon arrival in their new palace, the Californians start to plot and plan: “Renovation seems simple, really. A central water heater, with a new bath and existing baths routed to it, new kitchen – but simple, soul of simplicity.” And there’s the rest of the book for you – a blow by blow description of hiring a contractor and overhauling a kitchen.
The phenomenon of travel porn seems to me pernicious in the same way that regular pornography is. Rather than the soulless portrayal of what physical feats of ardor one might attain with an unrealistically firm body and in an imaginary world free of disease, these travel epics gloat about the golden life attainable only with a bottomless bank account and no niggling familial obligations. “Buy yourself a better life!” the books crow gleefully. “In the meantime, we’ll be financing our better life with your yearning dollars.” As an escape from daily boredom, I guess that’s fine, but as literature, it’s lacking, well, everything.
However, as a book club topic? Perfect. The hostess emailed that we’d be drinking Prosecco and eating “heavy Tuscan appetizers”. This is a concept (and club) I can get behind.