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Under the Tuscan Sun    by Frances Mayes Amazon.com order for
Under the Tuscan Sun
by Frances Mayes
Order:  USA  Can
Broadway, 2003 (1997)
Hardcover, Softcover, Audio, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Shannon Bigham

Having never before read a travel memoir, I began reading Under the Tuscan Sun with an open mind. However, I did have high expectations, knowing that this novel is a 1.5-million-copy bestseller that has been translated into various languages and turned into a major motion picture starring Diane Lane. I was not disappointed. Reading this book was almost like being transported to Mayes home, Bramasole (translation: something that yearns for the sun), in Cortona, Italy.

Mayes embarked on fulfilling a dream of buying a home in a small countryside town in Tuscany. The home needed work; it sat unoccupied for thirty years. Well, nothing human occupied the dwelling (spiders, scorpions and other insectoid inhabitants lived at Bramasole for years.) Though the selling price was high (if not astronomical) Mayes barely hesitated as she and her partner and husband, Ed, poured their financial investment into this purchase. It was a tremendous leap of faith and they never looked back.

The villa is resplendent with character and history. Sitting on five acres, complete with olive and fruit trees, it overlooks the Tuscan countryside, which is nothing less than spectacular. However, it needs a lot of improvements. Central heating, plumbing work, and cutting back the overgrowth on the five acres, is just the beginning. These projects cost time and money. Mayes and her partner dive in with hearts and wallets. They must adapt to local ways, with jobs not being finished on time and costing much more than originally quoted.

Mayes and Ed complete a lot of the work on the villa and the acreage themselves. They find a new passion in the simple acts of gardening, landscaping, cleaning, and 'old-fashioned' physical work. Their other passion is cooking and their culinary adventures with the local cuisine highlight the book. Mayes describes the bounty of fresh foods of the Tuscan region and even includes delectable-sounding recipes. In addition to cooking at home, the couple frequent local restaurants and wineries and the reader is treated to detailed descriptions of these experiences.

Mayes and Ed befriend many interesting people during their stays at Bramasole (where they spend summers and winter breaks from their teaching jobs in San Francisco). Many of their new friends are Italian (with a few American transplants) and Mayes and Ed learn more about local culture and customs by getting to know neighbors and townsfolk. Mayes recounts explorations of surrounding cities, making olive oil from olives grown on their land, historical finds as Bramasole is renovated, and the overall pleasure and satisfaction that she feels there. Indeed, she says it all when she tells us that she feels like she is 'at home' at her villa in Italy, despite her American heritage and residence in San Francisco.

This is a wonderful book. It was a treat to read about someone fulfilling such a fantastic dream restoring and owning a villa in Italy. While renovating the villa had its challenges and trials, it clearly changed Mayes' life for the better. Under the Tuscan Sun enables readers to vicariously experience its author's joy. Descriptions of the food, the terrain, the culture and the history of the area are superb. They make reading the book a pleasurable, sensory experience.

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