What happens after Tuscany

Haarlem

Review:  Frances Mayes’ A Year in the World

When Tuscany was not enough, Frances Mayes hit the road, traversing across Europe (not actually the World) with her husband. Remember when your fifth grade teacher made you write an essay “What I did on my summer vacation”?  So does Frances Mayes.  She wrote a four-hundred page summer essay that is alternately glorious and tedious.

Any traveler could fall in love after the preface, an Iyer-esque essay on the essence of travel, of memories and dreams.  “The urge to travel feels magnetic.  Two of my favorite words are linked:  departure time.  And travel whets the emotions, turns upside down the memory bank, and the golden coins scatter.”  I feel guilty that I can’t write a more positive review of an author with a gift for travel writing, but, by page 200, I tired of “I went here.  Then I went here.  Then I went here.”

In her glorious moments, Mayes makes me feel as if I am her co-pilot.  I see what she sees, hear what she hears.  But I can only listen to florid descriptive prose for the length of a magazine article, a few thousand words, not for a book of this size.  Make no mistake, Frances Mayes paints with a vibrant brush, such as this description of Wales:  “The saturated-green air looked aquatic, as though someone just pulled the plug, draining away the watery world leaving swaying meadows, fields, trees, and hills washed and gleaming.”

Yet A Year in the World can seem more like an exercise in expository writing than a cohesive story.  “A cart sells pinwheels.  All this under fragrant orange trees in the company of the looming church built on the foundations of a mosque.  Rather fantastic children’s clothing shops and bridal shops surround the plaza.”  Such passages set the scene brilliantly, but there is no action, and the settings blend together.  Sidewalk café becomes sidewalk café.  Shoppers walk the streets.  She ducks into a restaurant for a meal.  Her husband compares the coffees of Europe.  Repeat.

I created a parlor game out of the book, in which you open up the book to any two-page spread to see if Mayes is either eating, talking about food, or walking.  My success rate was over eighty percent, the perfect proof of the tedium.  I could have scored bonus points if was walking and eating on the same page.  If I had read this in e-book format, I would do a word search to see how many meals she eats, how many glasses of wine she drinks, how times she walks down European streets.

I underlined passages throughout which elegantly captured the spirit of travel, but this book is best consumed in pieces.  Leave it on your bookshelf.  Pick it up and read an elegantly crafted chapter to go with the Rick Steves show you just watched or the vacation you are dreaming of.  Then put it back on the shelf, until the next time you wish to savor Mayes’ morsels in bite-sized chunks.

Book Review of A Year in the World by Frances Mayes, one of the best travel books of all time.

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