Ah! A Year in Provence, the book that launched a whole new genre of travel literature: expat buys house in rural Europe (I call it EBHIRE) and reveals the nuances and minutia of the culture through truly new eyes and shares the difficulties of fixing up a home in a place they probably don’t belong. But the home buying is slippery ground to write upon. It is hard for travel-dreamers to feel pity for someone with enough money to retire to their dream home in the country.
This book is a classic because Peter Mayle succeeds where many after him fail. After his move from England to France’s Lubéron region, he makes day-to-day life seem enchanting, making it easy to picture ourselves sitting at the big stone table out back, certainly with a glass of wine in hand, listening to him regale us with these stories. There is nothing particularly funny about his writing, but we want to read on. We are charmed most, not by Provence, but by Mayle’s storytelling. During nearly the entire year, his home is under repairs, but he treats the subject with such pleasant patience. He never treads into oh-how-terrible-it-is-to-fix-up-an-old-house territory, as if we asked him to retire to rural France and buy a fixer-upper. I like to leave the complaints to Andy Rooney, and my travel writing to more positive souls, of which Mayle certainly is one.
Just as in our own lives, nothing much really happens. He takes us month by month through the seasons, with tales of winter’s mistral wind, said to make locals loco, and pleasant dips in the pool in August. Mayle eats a lot of good meals, drinks a lot of wine, and shops at the local boulangerie. He enchants us with tales from his almost-reclusive peasant neighbor Massot, who dreams of becoming a millionaire by selling his unkempt house and land, even though he never really entertains any offers. We learn the importance of hunting, truffles, and Michelin-rated gastronomy. Readers can relate to the often-unwelcome friends of friends who visit on their summer vacations. (Perhaps we see too much of ourselves in these guests.) And we can also relate to Mayle’s observations that we often blame outsiders (in this book, a varied lot including German tourists and Parisian weekenders) for our tribulations.
Intentionally, I did not investigate what has happened to this region since the book’s publishing in 1989. I know that this book launched legions of tourists on the area. Mayle himself laments the overtouristed nature of the Cote d’Azur: “Compared to the peace and relative emptiness of the Lubéron it seemed like a madhouse, disfigured by overbuilding, overcrowding, and overselling.” Ironically, his book has certainly played a major role in increasing tourism (both good and bad) to the Lubéron. When millions read of your charmed life, they want to break off a piece for themselves without realizing that perhaps it is Mr. Mayle and not the Lubéron which is charmed.
Mayle makes life seem simple, and writing seem simple, which is why this book launched EBHIRE writing. Unfortunately, too many have followed in his steps, embracing hyperbole, complaining of their difficulties, and widening the cultural gap instead of embracing the local culture. They would be best suited not to reread Mayle, but to absorb his attitude, before writing. It is something we could all benefit from.
Overall: Mayle makes Provence seem so charming, it’s no wonder so many have followed in his footsteps.