Surfacing briefly from the May supreme busy-ness which only escalate in the coming weeks – I’m in the plant nursery business – to talk a bit about a book. Much as I’d like to maunder on in-depth about everything I’ve been reading recently, there are those pesky time constraints…
A week ago it was below zero (Celsius) and snowing; today, in our region’s typical spring weather extremes fashion, it is forecast to hit the mid-plus-20s. The sun is coming across the valley (we’re nestled at the foot of the east side, tall hills behind us) so until it hits us directly I’m off-duty, as it were, from going out and tinkering with greenhouse ventilation systems. (Well, fans, windows, doors and roll-up hoop house side panels – not very fancy – but “ventilation systems” sounds much more professional, doesn’t it?) 😉
The second Sunday morning cup of tea is at hand – I’ve already consumed the first propped up in bed finishing a re-read of Tom’s Midnight Garden – and I’ve a short but sweet guilt-free chunk of non-work-related computer time before I need to be really up and moving again. Here we go.
Extra Virgin: A Young Woman Discovers the Italian Riviera, Where Every Month Is Enchanted by Annie Hawes – 2001. This edition: Harper Collins, 2001. Hardcover, first American edition. ISBN: 0-06-019850-8. 337 pages.
My rating: 9/10.
I almost didn’t pick this one up, but was intrigued by the (presumably) Elizabeth von Arnim reference in the subtitle. What I found inside this densely written creative autobiography was a better reward than I deserved for my initial hesitation. It’s taken me a good week of hard-won reading breaks to get through it all, but I was never tempted to set it aside in exchange for something shorter and easier. This one was a quiet pleasure from Prologue to reluctantly-turned last page.
Back in the early 1980s, a young Englishwoman, recently turned down as a “poor risk” in her attempt to receive bank financing to buy her own home in England, is at loose ends and feeling rather sour about life in general. Her sister convinces her to come along on a working trip to Italy, grafting roses for a small commercial operation in the Ligurian hills, in the region of the “Italian Riviera”.
Annie is a rose-culture neophyte, but her obviously experienced sister coaches her through the first thorny weeks, after which, settled well into their temporary occupation, the two find themselves occasionally with time to explore the surrounding countryside. On one of their off-duty hill walks they come across a derelict stone house in a neglected olive grove, and when the local real estate entrepreneur scents their interest, they find themselves possessed of a rural Italian property for the unbelievably cheap sum of 2000 pounds. The facilities are primitive to the extreme – water is bucketed up from a shallow dug well, and an outdoor shower and “earth closet” are needed for sanitary purposes, but the two settle into their new life with optimistic tenacity.
This is a rather different tale from the usual “we bought a place in a foreign paradise and hired quaint locals to fix it up” lifestyle porn. Written several decades after the purchase, the tone is not at all cutesy and patronizing. The sisters go to and from England and Italy regularly for many years – England for the “real” jobs which earn the funds to return to Italy for the love of the place, and, increasingly, the people.
I’ll tease you by revealing that Annie is not all that forthcoming about personal details, but more than makes up for it in her portraits of others, and in her much too brief comments regarding her own family. As well as the sister of the Ligurian enterprise there are three brothers, several of whom chip in to provide much-needed labour and even fire-fighting assistance during the progressive slow Italian house and olive grove renovations which stretch over the years.
Other reviewers – I briefly scanned the book’s page on Goodreads – had issue with some of the stylistic devices the author used, but I found them to be a non-issue, personally. Extra Virgin is written from the “we” viewpoint throughout, only slipping into “I” near the end. Much ironic use of capitalized terms – the Sulky Bar, the Evil Sister, the Poor Stranger, and so on. Again, for me, not a problem. The Author stayed most consistently true to her Chosen Style.
I did just a bit of research on Hawes after finishing Extra Virgin, and was more than intrigued by what I found – Annie’s back story includes a teenage marriage and a residence in Portugal, a child of that (quickly dissolved) marriage, much travelling and a “real” career as a film editor. Not much of this comes out in the Italian tale, but apparently her succeeding books, Ripe for the Picking and A Journey to the South, are more personally revealing. There’s also a Moroccan memoir, A Handful of Honey.
Annie’s second career as a memoirist is a definite success, at least enough so that, according to an author interview which appeared on the Harper Collins website, she now has indoor plumbing in Liguria.
I enjoyed the author’s voice in Extra Virgin enough that I will be seeking out her other books as soon as I am able to. She writes with a wry, dry humour and a very individual style, just short of “travel writer” parody. In a very good way. Loved it.
Oh – one more point in favour. Annie Hawes can certainly write about food! Amazing descriptions of the wild-crafted, gardening and culinary abundance of Liguria. I absent-mindedly found myself lining out yet another flat of basil seedlings and potting up extra eggplant babies while musing on my ongoing reading of Extra Virgin while out in my own very earth(l)y paradise this past week. This book made me hungry. Again, in a very good way.