Saturday, March 19, 2016

Under the Crushing Weight of the Tuscan Sun

I have sat on Tuscan-brown sofas surrounded by Tuscan-yellow walls, lounged on Tuscan patios made with Tuscan pavers, surrounded by Tuscan landscaping. I have stood barefoot on Tuscan bathroom tiles, washing my hands under Tuscan faucets after having used Tuscan toilets. I have eaten, sometimes on Tuscan dinnerware, a Tuscan Chicken on Ciabatta from Wendy’s, a Tuscan Chicken Melt from Subway, the $6.99 Tuscan Duo at Olive Garden, and Tuscan Hummus from California Pizza Kitchen. Recently, I watched my friend fill his dog’s bowl with Beneful Tuscan Style Medley dog food. This barely merited a raised eyebrow; I’d already been guilty of feeding my cat Fancy Feast’s White Meat Chicken Tuscany. Why deprive our pets of the pleasures of Tuscan living?

In “Tuscan Leather,” from 2013, Drake raps, “Just give it time, we’ll see who’s still around a decade from now.” Whoever among us is still here, it seems certain that we will still be living with the insidious and inescapable word “Tuscan,” used as marketing adjective, cultural signifier, life-style choice. And while we may never escape our Tuscan lust, we at least know who’s to blame: Frances Mayes, the author of the memoir “Under the Tuscan Sun,” which recounts her experience restoring an abandoned villa called Bramasole in the Tuscan countryside. The book, published in 1996, spent more than two and a half years on the Times best-seller list and, in 2003, inspired a hot mess of a film adaptation starring Diane Lane. In the intervening years, Mayes has continued to put out Tuscan-themed books at a remarkable rate—“Bella Tuscany,” “Bringing Tuscany Home,” “Every Day in Tuscany,” “The Tuscan Sun Cookbook”—as well as her own line of Tuscan wines, olive oils, and even furniture. In so doing, she has managed to turn a region of Italy into a shorthand for a certain kind of bourgeois luxury and good taste. A savvy M.B.A. student should do a case study.

I feel sheepish admitting this, but I have a longtime love-hate relationship with “Under the Tuscan Sun.” Since first reading the book, in the nineties, when I was in my twenties, its success has haunted me, teased me, and tortured me as I’ve forged a career as a food and travel writer who occasionally does stories about Italy. I could understand the appeal of Mayes’s memoir to, for instance, my mother, who loves nothing more than to plot the construction of a new dream house. “I come from a long line of women who open their handbags and take out swatches of upholstery,” Mayes writes, “colored squares of bathroom tile, seven shades of paint samples, and strips of flowered wallpaper.” She may as well be speaking directly to my mom and many of her friends. But I was more puzzled by the people my own age who suddenly turned Tuscan crazy—drizzling extra-virgin olive oil on everything, mispronouncing “bruschetta,” pretending to love white beans. In 2002, I was asked to officiate a wedding of family friends in Tuscany, where a few dozen American guests stayed in a fourteenth-century villa that had once been a convent. The villa’s owners were fussy yuppies from Milan who had a long, scolding list of house rules—yet, when we inquired why the electricity went out every day from 2 P.M. to 8 P.M., they shrugged and told us we were uptight Americans. This irritating mix of fussy, casual, and condescending reminded me of the self-satisfied tone of “Under the Tuscan Sun.” I began to despise the villa owners so much that when the brother-in-law of the bride and groom got drunk on Campari and vomited on a fourteenth-century fresco, causing more than a thousand euros in damage, I had a good, long private laugh.

Much of my hangup, let’s be clear, had to do with my own jealousy. If only I could afford a lovely villa, I certainly wouldn’t have been so smug! I would think. I would have lived more authentically! But beyond Italy and villas and personal gripes, Mayes’s book cast a long shadow over my generation of food and travel writers. As a young journalist, I quickly realized that editors were not going to give me cushy travel assignments to Italy, and so I began veering slightly off the beaten path, going to Iceland, Nicaragua, Portugal, and other countries that aren’t Italy, in order to sell articles. But the spectre of Mayes found me anyway. Once, in the early two-thousands, when I was trying to sell a book about Iceland, a publisher told me, “You know what you should do? You should buy a house in Iceland. And then fix it up, and live there, and write something like ‘Under the Icelandic Sun.’ ” I never sold a book on Iceland, nor did I sell my other pitches from that period, which were essentially “Under the Portuguese Sun” and “Under the Nicaraguan Sun.” By the late aughts, the mere mention of Mayes’s memoir made me angry. At one point I lashed out against the book in print, calling it “treacly” in an essay that was published days before I encountered Frances Mayes at a wine writers’ conference. I was assigned to sit across from her at the opening reception. She shook my hand and said, “I read your piece,” then ignored me for the rest of the dinner.

by Jason Wilson, New Yorker |  Read more:
Image: Touchstone/Everett