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, Zuppa Toscana at Olive Garden, and Tuscan Hummus from California Pizza Kitchen. I’ve 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 his 2013 hip-hop classic “Tuscan Leather,” Drake tell us, “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 decades, 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.
So it was with considerable baggage that I once again revisited “Under the Tuscan Sun” (on the occasion of its 25th anniversary) and discovered that my opinion of the book has grown ever so slightly more generous with age. This is not to say that I found the book free of flaws the second time around. For one, it contains virtually no narrative conflicts; each incident that could potentially cause tension gets resolved within paragraphs or, at most, a few pages. Will the villa’s previous owner sell to Frances and her partner, Ed? Yes, he will. Will a big pile of money needed to make the deal arrive by wire? Several paragraphs later, it does. Frances stubs her toe, to much consternation, and a few lines later Ed applies a Band-Aid. Before Tuscany, Frances used “Williams-Sonoma as a toy store,” but now she has just a few elementary kitchen tools; the dinners she makes are still fabulous. There’s an owl in the window, and Frances is “deathly afraid of birds,” but then she falls asleep and it flies away. (It’s no wonder that the screenwriters who adapted the book inserted several wildly fictionalized plot twists.)
The book also still seems to me full of petty complaints, with talk of “restoration horrors” or a “construction debacle” when, say, there is a delay in the arrival of the sandblaster needed to smooth the exposed wooden beams. Often these grievances are what we would now call humble brags. For instance: “One day we buy two armchairs at a local furniture store. By the time they’re delivered, we realize they’re awkward and the dark paisley fabric rather weird, but we find them sumptuously comfortable, after sitting upright in the garden chairs for weeks.” After the seeming solipsism of such passages, it’s hard to take Mayes seriously when she riffs on futurism, wine, the Etruscans, or D. H. Lawrence, each of which she discusses in meandering middle chapters. Of Lawrence’s “Etruscan Places,” she writes, “Rereading him along the way, I’m struck often with what an ass he was.” But Lawrence, for all his flaws, saw what Mayes’s forerunners had wrought as far back as 1916, when he published “Twilight in Italy.” “It must have been wonderful when the Romans came there. Now it is all villas,” he wrote a century ago, adding, “Everywhere stinks of mechanical money-pleasure.”
But when Mayes returns to the topic of her house renovations in the book’s later chapters, it becomes clear that there is genuine passion behind her project. “There is a great need to recount what you’ve done when you’re working on a house,” she writes. “Someone needs to hear that the beams look really great after their final waxing, that your neck is killing you from working above your head all day, that you’re on the fourth room.” Outside of Tracy Kidder’s “House,” I can’t think of a book with such vividly descriptive passages on the day-to-day frustrations, stresses, and rewards of home construction. In these passages, there’s a humbler, and perhaps truer, sense of drama and wonder. At one point, as workmen scrub down walls for painting, one of them calls to Mayes urgently from the third floor to show her what he has found:
We see an arch, then he rubs his wet cloth around it and scumbles of blue appear, then a farmhouse, almond green feathery strokes of what may be a tree. They have uncovered a fresco! We grab buckets and sponges and start gently cleaning the walls. Every swipe reveals more: two people by a shore, water, distant hills. The same blue that’s on the walls was used for the lake, a paler blue for the sky and soft coral for clouds. . . . We rub all afternoon. Water runs down our arms, sloshes on the floor.
However I feel about Mayes and her privilege, and the marketing phenomenon that has flourished in her wake, there’s no denying that her prose brings Bramasole to life. When the workers begin to open up a wall between her living room and the kitchen, removing large stones, Mayes writes, “It’s the imagination that carries us through the stress of these projects. Soon we will be happy!” During a Christmas Day snowfall, while her daughter and a friend are visiting, she asks, “Is this much happiness allowed?”
Rereading these passages, I felt a modicum of admiration for Mayes’s willingness to commit such earnest displays of pleasure to the page. Joy is one of the hardest things to write well, and bald talk of one’s personal happiness is easy to dismiss as tacky or self-indulgent. But really I think I’ve warmed to “Under the Tuscan Sun,” a little, because it now reads as the relic of a bygone moment in American life. The relatively calm and affluent years of Bill Clinton’s second term — with its tech bubble, budget surplus, easy credit, and Pottery Barn — may feel vaguely embarrassing 25 years in hindsight. Yet there is still a sunny glow to the period that many of us fondly recall.
In 1996, the mood was right for a real-life fantasy about a rural Italian villa in melodious decay. In 2021, in the aftermath of the Trump administration and during a pandemic that’s killed 400,000, the fantasy is doubled: lying on our Tuscan sofas, ordering Tuscan chicken subs on GrubHub, it’s easy to feel nostalgic for a time when we could still fool ourselves into buying into Mayes’s Tuscan fantasy.