A Year in the World: Journeys of a Passionate Traveller by Frances Mayes
If Tuscany is her brand, then Frances Mayes' most recent literary product, A Year in the World, is the franchise.
Over the last decade, Frances Mayes has taken the pastoral central Italian region of Tuscany, and made it a brand. Chasing the wild popularity of her first memoir, Under the Tuscan Sun (1997), with an additional memoir (Bella Tuscany, 2000) a book of essays (In Tuscany, 2000) and a coffee table book (Bringing Tuscany Home, 2004), the former professor of creative writing has cultivated an enthusiastic following of vicarious bon vivants. But if Tuscany is her brand, then Frances Mayes' most recent literary product, A Year in the World, is the franchise: the same formula exercised in new locations, with mildly diluted quality. Lovers of Mayes will no doubt adore A Year in the World, but the collected essays are unlikely to attract any new readers.
A Year in the World is based on a weak concept and executed with minimal editing. In order to earn the title, Mayes does not actually spend "a year in the world" but instead writes a series of essays about various sojourns over the course of four years. The result is a lack of a defined arc. Her trips last anywhere from a few months to a long weekend, take place over several continents, and range from an extended stay in a rental home in a small town in Spain, to a package cruise in the Greek Islands. The essays vary widely in theme and topic. Most read like diary entries, and are often quite literally made up of lists of places, paintings, and meals. At times, the strategy works. In "Astrolabe and Cataplana," an essay about traveling and living in Portugal, the incessant repetition of ingredients and piazzas takes on a captivating, almost meditative quality. A less successful essay, the Neapolitan "Spaccanapoli," has the same repetitive format, but reads as little more than a slapdash list of restaurants.
Mayes is at her strongest when she combines her academic background with her love of traveling. In "Blood Oranges," an essay about Andalusia, Mayes writes about Federico Garcia Lorca. The result is a melancholy dirge and personal tribute to one of Spain's most beloved literary figures. Similarly, in "A Paperweight for Colette" Mayes tours Burgundy in a personal quest to visit the childhood home of the writer, Colette. Although Mayes' writing is easily serious, breezily profound, and demonstrates great depth of mind, she occasionally shrinks from developing more intellectual themes in these essays. In "A Sun on Its Throne," an essay about her stay in Sicily, Mayes develops a line of thinking around Sicilian writer, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, and his reflections on the island's bright sun and dark history. Her incorporation of his ideas and prose into the essay is one of the densest segments in A Year in the World. "It's a breathtaking, dark cultural analysis of Sicily at the historical juncture of unifications," Mayes sagely remarks and then goes on to write, "The indictment and finesse of Lampedusa's prose sends me out into the streets -- perhaps for one of those spiced sherbets he mentioned, or his favorite rum jelly." This is where the book falls short. Mayes hints at intellectual themes, but stops suddenly and goes out for ice cream.
Sweetness is her way. Mayes writing style is generally upbeat, endlessly flowery and usually impeccably observant -- a style that is not to all tastes but has delivered enormous success. She is prone to decadent statements; "We free fall into a special ambience we did not know existed but which seems so oddly familiar, so right." The need for a rigorous chopping (or at least a reigning in) of Mayes' more absurdly prodigal prose is clear throughout.
The fatal flaw of A Year in the World is theme. Instead of a binding concept, Mayes delivers a final, incongruous essay in which she betrays her unflagging Europhilia and announces an aspiration to open a café near her hometown in southern Georgia, where she will act acting as a kind of missionary of good taste.
Frances Mayes may have simply penned herself into a niche that she cannot write herself out of. At times, in A Year in the World, she makes illuminating connections between the past and present, between the literary tradition and her own experience, but she does so hesitantly, seemingly with the knowledge that she has to scurry back to listing olive varieties before the reader loses interest. Having defined "the good life" for millions of readers, Mayes now has an obligation to continue experience a life of endlessly delicious wines and delicate sunsets. For readers who have cultivated a devotion to the brand of Frances Mayes, A Year in the World will be a chance to see the heroine in a new kind of action and to learn a little bit about a lot of places. But for new readers, A Year in the World is an exercise in unrealized potential that is ultimately unsatisfying.