For a freelance assignment, I’ve been reading “See You in the Piazza,” Frances Mayes’ new book about her life in Italy. It’s the latest of several follow-ups to “Under the Tuscan Sun,” in which Mayes, an American, recounted her restoration of an old villa in Tuscany and the new world she discovered among the locals.
Mayes has a way of landing at my doorstep as winter points to spring. Her memoirs, which are always full of bright colors and sunny locales, are often something to warm my hands around until the days get truly balmy.
In 2014, which included some cold snaps, I consoled myself with a review copy of Mayes’ “Under Magnolia” while I sat in a doctor’s office waiting for an X-ray. A hard freeze had glazed my driveway with ice, and I’d cracked my elbow after slipping on the pavement.
Mayes is good company, although she can sometimes seem like those people you meet at a class reunions whose lives are maybe a little too perfect. “Because pasta is the national anthem,” Mayes writes of Italy, “I’m searching for quintessential tastes of each place, though instead of pasta I might fall for sbrisolona, the crumbly, nutty dessert that turns divine when dipped in zabaglione.”
You don’t need to be familiar with sbrisolona or zabaglione to know they must be decadent. Mayes describes Italian dishes so seductively that you assume they’re calorie bombs.
If I ate as much as Mayes seems to, I'd have to call my Italian travelogue "Just Under a Tuscan Ton." She appears annoyingly slim in her publicity photos — perhaps because, as her books also reveal, she and her husband Ed also do a lot of walking.
Walking keeps Mayes outdoors, where the Italian sky figures as another big theme in her books. “We get to see sunset across the vineyard, the raked light changing from clear to honey to amber, then streaks of rose and cerulean,” she writes of a day’s close in Italy’s Piemonte region. In the Sicilian hamlet of Marzamemi, she enjoys the “wan October twilight, still warm enough to sit outside, with the paving stones gleaming like wet soap from the lights on surrounding buildings.”
Mayes is an enthusiastic student of light, and the Mediterranean is a prime spot for her pastime. But her books are really a celebration of seeing, regardless of where you happen to be. As the title suggests, “Under Magnolia” isn’t about Italy, but her childhood in Georgia. As I mentioned in a column when that book came out, she includes a shout-out to New Orleans, where she once had a boyfriend. She writes fondly of “the ruined plantations with oak alleys … the brown swirling color of an old meandering looping wide river.”
It’s a reminder that you can find wonder where you seek it — a welcome tiding as the landscape greens and we go outside to see what there is to see.