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Paris! Tuscany! The glamour level of French Toast and Bella Tuscany is higher than the Eiffel Tower and Pisan campanile combined. What juicy secrets and Euromorsels will Harriet Welty Rochefort and Frances Mayes, both American transplants in their middle years, tell us about two places whose very names evoke romance, leisure, and intense longing? Anything that we the vicarious lollers in the Tuscan sun can use during that week at the villa we keep meaning to rent? There are plenty of “maddening mysteries of the French”—tell us what they are so that when we land at Charles de Gaulle we’ll have some understanding, or at least a snotty remark en francais, on tap.
Travel narratives should transport the reader to the land in question in a way that evokes more atmosphere than envy. A good travel writer knows that it isn’t the broad strokes that make a place come alive, but the flavorful details within, which should limn not just a landscape or scene but the rhythm of life and the peculiarity of its customs. Little things strike exotic notes—yes, Arabs drink coffee, but allowing the liquid to slop into the saucer says something about the culture that the drink does not.
But the impression the reader comes away with after reading both of these books is clear as sunlight on the Seine: These broads are loaded.
Rochefort, for example, is the Iowa-born 40-ish wife of a French banker, whose daily round seems to consist of shopping for clothes, shopping for dinner parties, throwing dinner parties, attending dinner parties, and being paralyzed with envy of her sister-in-law’s clothes and dinner parties. All of this takes place in a Paris neighborhood she refers to frequently, and with slightly disingenuous exasperation, as “nouveau riche.”
While French Toast may be a godsend for 40-ish American women married to French bankers, it is not a useful guide for the tourist with a passion for Paris, nor a friendly helpmeet for the student abroad for a year, nor a tip sheet for the expatriate. It is a very curious insider’s chronicle, detailing randomly one aspect of Rochefort’s Parisian existence per chapter—”The French and Their Food,” “The Frenchwoman,” “Politesse.” The book is a lumpy mix of self-deprecating anecdotes, not entirely useful advice and gleanings from academic papers, and interviews with experts meant to put her observations in historical perspective—or at least explain why her husband expects her to do his packing. (Because he’s kind of a jerk?)
The book does contain a smattering of examples of Parisian insanity—the traffic, the hauteur, the mad French bureaucratic mind that leads a clerk in an empty post office to claim that, should she send each of Rochefort’s hundred letters through the stamp machine, she would be holding up any potential line that might form. And the coda, “Why I Will Never Be French (But I Really Am!),” full of ambivalence, presents a truly infuriating portrait of non-English-speaking houseguests and colleagues who feel no compunction about mimicking Mme. Rochefort’s accent in a nasty singsong voice upon meeting her, like the “eminent French doctor” who keeps up his imitation throughout an entire meal.
It sounds as if the American wives who grouse about their French counterparts could take a tip in the realms of grooming, serenity, and pleasant demeanor; to hear Rochefort tell it, they’re all hyena-braying guffawers wearing cheap business suits and sneakers. The chapter on politesse guides the reader through the minefield of dinner-party manners and the hidden codes of French conversation—it’s mildly entertaining but not very useful, except for the tips on dining, which are mostly intuitive (cut the Camembert in wedges, “Don’t get soused”). Perhaps Rochefort’s Iowa upbringing left her ill-prepared for the nuances of interfeminine vache (cowlike, or artfully bitchy) behavior; any woman from the American South would have known how to handle the neighbor’s query about whether the Rocheforts would like a fence between their own back door and the sight of the neighbor’s clothesline. “No, it doesn’t bother me,” she told the neighbor, delighted with her subtlety. M. Rochefort, rightly, fumed. The proper answer is: “It’s up to you. I don’t know whether you mind other people seeing your personal belongings.” And of course her husband quietly exchanged aperitifs with her and flicked the errant fly from the glass into the fireplace without announcing to the hostess that the drink was inhabited.
The biggest trouble with French Toast is the author’s own sturdy, hidebound Americanness and that of her expat kaffeeklatsch. While the many subtleties of French dinner-party gauche have a Martian charm, some of her own stories rankle even in vulgar American terms. Don’t assist in the kitchen, she advises the reader, recounting the time she helpfully tossed out a bowl of some clear liquid for a hostess who watched with horror as the syrup for her fruit salad swirled down the drain—not de rigeur behavior, one would think, even in Iowa. The day she puts on slacks and high heels to compete with the “cold, superior-looking Frenchwomen” whose effortless chic baffles her, Rochefort’s friends taunt, “You’ve gone native.” If drinking in chic from the fountainhead isn’t one of the reasons she resettled in Paris, no wonder it all seems so confusing.
The most insiderish chapter, on the French education system, shows the indulgent American mother at her touchy-feeliest, demanding that since her son has coordination troubles, he should be excused from writing with a fountain pen, noting with awe that the learning curve is low and bad grades are given. “Difficulties are there to be surmounted, not to be made easier,” she writes. She sent her kids off every morning with, “Have fun,” while the French mothers instructed, “Be good.” Quel horreur!
French Toast is intermittently amusing, but maddening. It leaves the reader entranced by the cover illustration of the three most romantic things in the world—a poodle, the Eiffel Tower, and the color pink—feeling that the author doesn’t deserve her life.
Frances Mayes’ ongoing chronicle of her part-time Italian world (beginning with 1996’s Under the Tuscan Sun) runs the risk of being another A Year in Provence. Peter Mayle’s catty series recounting his travails with idiot rural Frenchmen and obnoxious houseguests after buying a farmhouse in idyllic Provence made him a virtual pariah in southern France, out of which he was run on a rail once the book went into translation. But Mayes isn’t an English-speaking exploiter of trendy landscapes; she’s a poet, a professor of creative writing at San Francisco State University, and an explorer willing to give herself over to the rules and rhythms of Tuscan life and reap the spiritual rewards of surrender.
Bella Tuscany finds Mayes on sabbatical, returning to her Cortona farmhouse months earlier than usual; her academic schedule allows for radiant Tuscan summers, but this year the Mayeses meet cool spring head on. A bitter winter has wiped out many of her plantings, the insistent gardeners have their own ideas about what she ought to grow, the well pump is dead again, and two ancient bathrooms need remodeling. With plenty of time on their hands—”What a musical phrase!” she sighs—the Mayeses travel down to Sicily and up to Venice as tourists before returning for Cortona’s growing season.
Whereas Under the Tuscan Sun recounted the couples cobbling back together their dilapidated, haunted farmhouse at probably staggering expense, the new volume takes place on the grounds, where hail and wind assault the new plants, bats swoop out from the walls, and the fecund earth is so accommodating that halfway through the book Mayes contemplates erecting a folly. Her enthusiasm and love of the culture are contagious—she describes great wines, simple spring dishes (recipes included), and quirky everyday interludes with the same freshness of eye.
On the trips and the garden plan, Mayes has no goal; her Italian time is all risk and lilt, following hopeless dirt roads that go nowhere, eating in strange deserted farmhouses described, favorably, as “dirty,” letting the strong Tuscan sunlight determine what she can and cannot grow. Mayes never abandons a sense of gratitude; each view from the farmhouse is a blessing. “Looking out—looking into Italy!” she exclaims. A writer with this attitude and with Mayes’ sensitive delight in language is a fine tour guide indeed, even when playing the tourist, marveling at fresh Venetian fish, scuttling away from what she is sure is a Mafia funeral in Sicily, or lost in the dark after a restaurant meal in “eerie Erice.”
Mayes toys with language like a jeweler holding gems up to light, captivated by the rich argot—un bel secchio d’acgua, a “beautiful” bucket of water, so much better for the lavender plants than a merely big one; the wine “Sangiovese,” ancient and rich, denoting a time when pre-Christian Romans watered down the “blood of Jove” before drinking it. Her travels and work on the house inspire by-roads of personal reminiscence and string pathways between her current inner life and its emotional antecedents with shining strands of prose. “Memory, they all rise, young again, able to see with looking,” is how she closes out a contemplation of the collector’s mind-set—accumulation of things as a harnessing of the intimate past. It is also a fine description of a travel writer’s gift to the reader—Mayes’ graceful book makes us able to see without looking. CP