Wednesday, August 06, 2008

A Year in Provence, by Peter Mayle

I posted this on my own blog a while back but completely forgot to post my review of the book here during July. Very sorry about that.

This book is a delight from beginning to end. The subject matter, the writing style, the local characterizations -- from the first page to the last, I was drawn in and fascinated by life in Provence. Mayle is a gifted writer and has a talent for selecting just the right moment and describing it in perfect detail. As a result, there are gems to be found on every page and a laugh in just about every paragraph.

The premise of the book is the many experiences of the first year that the author (or narrator, depending on how the reader chooses to distinguish the two) and his wife have after moving to Provence. They buy an old French house -- apparently the one in the picture below -- and then set themselves to the task of remodeling it and assimilating into Proven├žal life. As expected, there are all kinds of new adventures along the way, from getting accumstomed to the local way of measuring time to getting used to the vast changes in weather, from learning the variances of the French language in Provence to braving the many guests who invite themselves down. The house that is supposed to be remodeled within a matter of a month or two doesn't get completed until December, and then only because the author and his wife lure the builders into finishing the job by throwing a cocktail party and inviting them and their wives. (The ploy is quite brilliant actually: no self-respecting workman from Provence would let his wife see that his work is only half-finished.) But the year and the story moves very quickly, and by the time the reader reaches December, it's a little disappointing to know that it will all be over soon.

Although the remodeling of the house is the central element of the plot, Mayle doesn't focus exclusively on the challenges of getting contractors to finish a job in a timely manner, which is just as well since that seems to be a universal and not terribly original problem. While their house is being torn apart and rebuilt, he and his wife take the time to experience the local culture and get to know the part of Provence in which they are living. There is hiking to do, truffles to hunt, (lots of) wine to drink, cafes to enjoy, and even a goat race to watch. The book was originally published in 1989, so I suspect that no matter how "provincial" Provence might have remained, much of what Mayle describes is now obsolete, but it's fun to read about anyway. For myself, I have to admit that I hope the cafe bathrooms have improved and that many of the cafes now take credit cards (which I would assume they do, or at least some of them). But I enjoyed Mayle's take on everything and his willingness to allow Provence to reveal itself to him and to accept Provence as it is and not as he thought it would, or should, be.

To me, the best part of the book has to be Mayle's descriptions of the people encountered along the way. From the trigger-happy neighbor Massot to the industrious tenant Faustin and his wife Henriette to the delightfully philosophical electrician Menicucci, Mayle breathes life into each of these characters and shows the reader how they make up the Provence that he has learned to love. My personal favorite, though, might be Mayle's description of the hapless English friend Bennett who accidentally caught the backseat of his rented convertible on fire (while driving down the autoroute, no less) and then put the fire out by urinating on it. (He did pull over to perform that task.) I laughed for about three days when I read this.

Two thumbs up for A Year in Provence and a big recommendation. Mayle's wit is wonderfully dry and his sense of humor keeps the reader interested. I realize that this one isn't exactly fresh off the printing presses, but the writing style is fresh enough to keep it relevant and enjoyable for some time.

Year of publication: 1989
Number of pages: 207

Cross-posted to Dwell in Possibility.


At 8:16 AM, Blogger Rose said...

Thank you for the review! I just had to return this book shy of finishing it, so I didn't feel confident posting an incomplete review, but I loved what I read of it. The meandering narrative style and the laid-back pace of life flowed together nicely.

I loved his description of food - every time I read a bit more, I got hungry for fresh aubergines (don't even know what those are, but they sound lovely, natural, healthy, and delicious), truffles, and other delights of the French countryside. I loved how he described the mealtimes as such an event there, and how people took their culinary arts seriously. And yes, it did sound a bit expensive, but as he pointed out, what most Brits (and you could sub in Americans too, no doubt) spend on their electronics, the French spend on gastronomy. Not a bad trade-off.

The good-humoured corruption of faking real estate prices to avoid taxes and selling truffles on the black market was pretty funny. Apparently that sort of stuff is an open secret.

I would love to vacation in Provence, but living there would drive me MAD. I could not stand having contractors, whom I had legally contracted with, blowing me off when more lucrative contracts pulled their attention elsewhere. It's not that I'm a busy American hyped up on coffee and crazy with impatience - it's just the principle of the thing! Very big cultural differences about time and property.

Great read. Very enjoyable.

At 2:33 PM, Blogger Calon Lan said...

I think aubergine is the British name for eggplant. (They're version sounds much more delectable than ours! Who could turn down something called "aubergine"?)

At 2:54 PM, Blogger Queen of Carrots said...

I got hungry reading this book, too, and I've never even had French food. Aubergines are indeed eggplant, according to my kitchen shelf paper. I still don't think I would like them.

At 6:26 AM, Blogger Sarah Mehrens said...

I'll have to check this book out. Have you ever heard of the Olive Harvest trilogy by Carol Drinkwater? It's based on her life and about the olive farm she and her boyfriend/fiance/husband buy. Carol is an actress most famous for playing the role of James Herriot's wife for several years in the TV show All Creatures Great and Small. The book has it's moments (i.e. she lives with her boyfriend before they get married), but overall I really enjoyed the book for all its deep descriptions of the farm and life therein.

At 8:05 AM, Blogger S. Krishna said...

I've heard good things about this book! Thanks for the review!


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