When a copy of Peter Mayle’s latest — and final — book crossed my desk the other day, I thought of my friend and newspaper colleague Laurie Smith Anderson, an avid follower of Mayle’s writing until her death in 2007.
Mayle, who died earlier this year, was famous for “A Year in Provence,” his comical 1989 bestseller about his move from his native England to the French countryside, where he and his wife endured various misadventures as they renovated an old farmhouse.
Mayle, a successful advertising executive, had moved to Provence to write a novel, but dealing with eccentric building contractors and his colorful new neighbors slowed progress. Eventually, he decided to write about the people who were keeping him from writing. The result, “A Year in Provence,” drew millions of readers, and other books about his life in Provence followed.
“My Twenty-Five Years in Provence,” published last month, is Mayle’s swan song. Mayle didn’t aspire to anything as grand as a moral in his reports from rural France. But his prevailing theme — that while you are busy pursuing your professional goals, it’s life itself that’s the real prize — is a compelling one.
Anderson liked Mayle’s books because she had lived in France as a young woman and remained interested in its culture. Mayle’s message about savoring the simple pleasures — a good glass of wine, a nice meal, the arrival of spring — was something she liked too. She championed that idea in “Patient Person,” a lovely book that collected her newspaper essays about living life to the fullest after her cancer diagnosis.
“One thing I decided early on in my battle against cancer was to go on living,” she told readers. “Even if cancer wins in the end, I choose to continue my ordinary life. I choose to do it today. I choose to do it now. So, please excuse me while I start my jambalaya and cut up a fruit salad.”
Mayle had a similar appreciation for living in the moment. In one of the essays in his final book, he writes about early summer: “Still too early for crickets, but serenades from the tree-frog section begin each evening when the sun goes down. Owls occasionally make a contribution, too, and so one way and another, there is never a dull moment.”
Mayle’s writing increased tourism to Provence, as people flocked there to grasp a bit of the magic he had found. The region’s beauty is exceptional, but the real point of his books was that celebrating life, what the French call joie de vivre, needn’t be confined to a single place.
Rheta Grimsely Johnson argued as much in “Poor Man’s Provence,” her 2008 book about the charmed people she found in the Acadiana community of Henderson.
I finished reading Mayle’s final book last week and put it on my shelf next to Anderson's. It was grand to see them together again.