Saturday, July 21, 2012


“I had the urge to examine my life in another culture and move beyond what I knew.” ― Frances MayesUnder the Tuscan Sun

Usually, I try to read the book before I see the movie. "The Godfather," "Heartburn," "Rosemary's Baby" were all great books which added to my enjoyment of the movies. I must have seen  "Under the Tuscan Sun" at least fifteen times on TV, not to mention all the times I popped in the DVD. At some point during all those viewings, I  was honestly surprised to learn that the movie was loosely based on Frances Mayes' memoir, that Bramasole really exists!

I've always been a slow reader, so I set myself a goal for 2012: I was going to read, on average, a book each week.  Murder mysteries and thrillers are my favorites. But like Frances, I thought it was time that I "move beyond what I knew." So I read the first couple of sentences on Amazon:
I am about to buy a house in a foreign country. A house with the beautiful name of Bramasole.
And that's when I bought the book.

The book's 280 pages are deceptively long, partly due to the font size, which seemed smaller than I'm used to. Watching the movie first actually improved my interest in the book. Since the book is literary, I doubt I would have bought it without having seen the movie first. 

The book is about Bramasole and Tuscany, about restoring the villa, about cooking -- she's included quite a few recipes -- and it's about gardening. After reading about wasps in her book I may never eat another Fig Newton:
"[T]he fig flower is inside the fruit.  To pull one open is to look into a complex, primitive, infinitely sophisticated life cycle tableau.  Fig pollination takes place through an interaction with a particular kind of wasp about one eighth of an inch long.  The female bores into the developing flower inside the fig. Once in, she delves with her oviposter, a curved needle nose, into the female flower's ovary, depositing her own eggs.  If her oviposter can't reach the ovary (some of the flowers have long styles), she still fertilizes the fig flower with the pollen she collected from her travels.  Either way, one half of this symbiotic system is served--the wasp larvae develop if she has left her eggs or the pollinated fig flower produces seed.  If reincarnation is true, let me not come back as a fig wasp.  If the female can't find a suitable nest for her eggs, she usually dies of exhaustion inside the fig.  If she can, the wasps hatch inside the fig and all the males are born without wings.  Their sole, brief function is sex.  They get up and fertilize the females, then help them tunnel out of the fruit.  Then they die.  The females fly out, carrying enough sperm from the tryst to fertilize all their eggs.  Is this appetizing, to know that however luscious figs taste, each one is actually a little graveyard of wingless male wasps?  Or maybe the sensuality of the fruit comes from some flavor they dissolve into after short, sweet lives."
There are differences between the book and the movie. The biggest difference deals with Ed, an American. Ed is not the Italian Marcello in the movie. Ed and Frances both teach in universities in San Francisco. They are together in the beginning; there was no chance meeting of Ed in the book, like the impetuous fling when movie Francis met Marcello. I never learn from the book if they were married or not. I'm not even sure if Frances alone bought Bramasole or if she and Ed bought it together. In fact, there are few personal details about Frances in her memoir.  

I learned more about Frances in this interview . Like how her readers clamor to hear about Ed. (Were they expecting Marcello?) "Under the Tuscan Sun" may lack personal anecdotes, however Frances did open up in the interview and related this hilarious story:
She and Ed get married, and when her own daughter marries, she's embarrassed to relate, she has changed so much that she doesn't even recognize her ex-husband at the wedding. "I'm Frances, Ashley's mother,'' she says to him. Assuming she's joking, he replies that he is Ashley's father
I loved reading about the villa's restoration, but when Frances decided to take us on a 50-page tour of Tuscany, I almost shelved the book right then and there. Good, Lord, Frances, just take me back to Bramasole! I had googled Bramasole and discovered you can rent it. I wanted to find out how that happened -- Did she sell Bramasole? Did she turn it into a B&B or a hotel? -- so I skipped 'the tour' completely, jumping over those 50 pages, and finished the book. Frances never mentioned anything about renting it out. Instead, I did learn some of what has happened to Bramasole, since the book was published, at a site called Hooked on Houses: "Under the Tuscan Sun": The Real-Life Renovated Villa. I'm fairly certain Frances and Ed Mayes still own Bramasole, and I suspect they rent it out when they're staying at their other home in San Francisco. Apparently, lots of villa owners everywhere do that.

I gave the book 4 stars on Goodreads. I would have given it 5 stars had it not been for the Tuscany tour. 

P.S. Oh, and by the way, I've read 30 books in 29 weeks :~)