New Feature: Books About Expats
Just as we recently started a monthly series on Expat Films, this is the first of our new monthly series on Books About Expats. Once a month, we’ll review a book about an expat(s), and I welcome your suggestions on books to review. Just post a comment (click the link below) if you have a book in mind. And now . . . drumroll please. . . the first in our new Books About Expats series:
A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle
Peter Mayle, successful British advertising executive, retired from the mad scramble of the English equivalent of Madison Avenue and bought a farmhouse in the Luberon region of southern France. A Year in Provence is his account of their first year in France. Divided into 12 chapters, one for each month, the book is peopled with delightful characters from all walks of life. Plumbers, masons and other builders figure prominently, as do winemakers, a stressed-out Parisienne who swoops past him on the roads on a regular basis, and the farmer neighbor who tends their shared vines.
And, since this is a story about life in France, food plays a prominent role. In fact, food begins the story. Stating, “The year began with lunch,” Mayle describes their special New Year’s lunch in a small local restaurant, and states:
“While we ate, my wife and I thought of previous New Year’s Days, most of them spent under impenetrable cloud in England. It was hard to associate the sunshine and dense blue sky outside with the first of January but, as everyone kept telling us, it was quite normal. After all, we were in Provence.”
Throughout the narrative, which maintains a slow but steady pace, with lots of interesting side explorations into topics of perpetual interest (the weather, food, politics, food, winemaking, food), Mayle allows us to glimpse life in that part of France. Remodeling the kitchen, pursuing the perfect wine, entertaining wanted and unwanted visitors from England, shopping in local markets, even cleaning the swimming pool, are deftly and wittily described. And, integral to those descriptions, are the differences between the Mayles’ home culture and the culture they find in France. On donating blood:
“Our veins were plumbed into the plastic bags. . . The hall was noisy and good-humored, and people who would normally pass one another on the street without acknowledgment were suddenly friendly, in the way that often happens when strangers are united in their performance of a good deed. Or it might have had something to do with the bar at the end of the room.
“In England, the reward for a bagful of blood is a cup of tea and a biscuit. But here, after being disconnected from our tubes, we were shown to a long table manned by volunteer waiters. What would we like? coffee, chocolate, croissants, brioches, sandwiches of ham or garlic sausage, mugs of red or rose wine? Eat up! Drink up! Replace those corpuscles! The stomach must be served! A young male nurse was hard at work with a corkscrew, and the supervising doctor in his long white coat wished us all bon appetit. If the steadily growing pile of empty bottles behind the bar was anything to go by, the appeal for blood was an undoubted success, bot clinically and socially.”
The year, which started with lunch on New Year’s Day, ends with a Christmas party. It leaves a good taste in the mouth, and I highly recommend it.
If you read A Year in Provence, would love to know whether you like it. Please post your comment by clicking on the link below.
All quotes are from A Year in Provence, Peter Mayle, Vintage Departures, Vintage Books A Division of Random House, Inc., New York, 1989.
Footnote: A Year in Provence was filmed as a 1993 BBC television series starring John Thaw and Lindsay Duncan. It is definitely worth watching, but I’d read the book first. Along similar lines, Frances Mayes wrote a book, Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy, recounting her attempts to rebuild a farmhouse in Tuscany. This was later made into a movie by the same name. Her book is nowhere near as delightful as Mayle’s look at Provence, and the movie was a sad disappointment.