Posts Tagged ‘Peter Mayle’

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle ~ 1989. This edition: Vintage, 1991. Paperback. ISBN: 0-679-73114-8. 207 pages.

This, like the über-ubiquitous lifestyle-bestseller of twenty years later, 2009’s Eat, Pray, Love (which I have to admit I bailed out on without finishing just a few months ago), is one of those books, the ones that have become so much a part of our cultural literacy that we don’t have to actually have read them to know what they’re all about. Or what we think they’re all about, which isn’t always completely accurate.

Happily, unlike my experience with Eat, Pray, Love, A Year in Provence was something of a treat.

It didn’t change my life. I’m not saving my pennies for a plane ticket to France – England still tops my want-to-visit travel list. I didn’t even particularly relate to the narrator, a well-off British ex-advertising executive, who, along with wife number three, had decided to live the dream and relocate full-time to sunny Provence, with expected subsequent adventures in old house restoration-to-modern-living-standards.

What I did like was the foodiness of the thing. Oh, glory. The descriptions of the food! Yes, please, sit me down in a small French café and bring me the spécialité du jour, no decisions needed on my part as to what it will be, just the assurance that it will be very, very good.

There was one menu, at 110 francs. The young girl who serves on Sundays brought out a flat basketwork tray and put it in the middle of the table. We counted fourteen separate hors d’oeuvres – artichoke hearts, tiny sardines fried in batter, perfumed tabouleh, creamed salt cod, marinated mushrooms, baby calamari, tapenade, small onions in a fresh tomato sauce, celery and chick-peas, radishes and cherry tomatoes, cold mussels. Balanced on the top of the loaded tray were thick slices of pâté and gherkins, saucers of olives and cold peppers. The bread had a fine crisp crust. There was white wine in the ice bucket, and a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape left to breathe in the shade.

The main course arrived – rosy slices of lamb cooked with whole cloves of garlic, young green beans, and a golden potato-and-onion galette. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape was poured, dark and heady…

The cheese was from Banon, moist in its wrapping of vine leaves, and then came the triple flavours and textures of the desserts – lemon sorbet, chocolate tart, and crème anglais all sharing a plate. Coffee. A glass of marc

And then Mr. Mayle wonders why his English friends angle madly for invitations-to-visit…

Well, no, I don’t really mean that. Mr. Mayle doesn’t wonder. He absolutely gets it, and is very up front in his own reasons for his resettlement to la Région Provençale: the food is identified early on as a major factor.

Peter Mayle is equal parts amused and bemused with his new neighbours; a high-nosed bit of snobbery peeks out here and there, but by and large the character portraits the author paints are quite kind to the originals, with perhaps some creative embellishments here and there. His French neighbours may have thought differently: after the book’s publication some character defamation accusations were lobbed about. (Peter Mayle had used real names throughout, against the cautioning advice of his wife.)

I hadn’t expected to enjoy this book so much, for the cynic in me always whispers that these sorts of astonishing-hit memoirs couldn’t really be as good as all that. I am pleased to admit that I called this one wrong. It is a pleasant sort of memoir, deliberately humorous with general success; the author lets his opinions show, and they are sometimes tart, which enhanced a somewhat pedestrian narrative of month-to-month accounts of scenery, weather, shopping, dining out, and dealing with various workmen.

He is particularly hard on the hypocrisy of his French neighbours in regard to their love-hate relationship with all of the tourists, and he is – slightly paradoxically – just as hard on those tourists, including many of his own visitors. To do him justice, he freely admits that he is part of that tourist wave, though he justifies things by boasting (occasionally) how much superior he is as a full-time resident, not one of the fly-by-night holiday folk whose deluxe renovated farmhouses stand empty much of he year.

A Year in Provence became a surprise bestseller, and the Mayles’ rural retreat was ultimately a victim of its success. The book attracted so many tourists to their very doorstep – picnicking uninvited in the garden, swimming in the private pool – that the couple sold out some five years after it was published, relocating to Long Island, New York. That was fine for a while, but the siren song of France was still calling: the Mayles returned to Provence after five years in America, this time very carefully not disclosing their place of residence to the public at large.

There is a melancholy postscript to this tale of an author, for he died just a few weeks ago, at the age of 78, in a hospital close to his home in Provence. Repose en paix, Peter Mayle.

Extra: An interesting article here, by Alice Steinbach, published June 25, 1996 in The Baltimore Sun.

And my rating: 6.75/10.

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