August 27, 2014

Under Magnolia

If I'm going to be honest, I would have to start by saying that normally, Under Magnolia  -- a contemporary memoir, one focused on childhood and a not-very-happy family, and a book about the South  --wouldn't check any of my reading boxes. But I've loved the books Frances Mayes wrote about Tuscany, for the way she writes more than what she writes about.  When I was offered a copy to review, I couldn't pass up the chance to read it.
Frances Mayes came to my local bookstore on a book tour a few years ago and I remember her southern accent.  When you've 'know' someone as a college professor and a poet, living  in California, a woman who impulsively buys and restores a villa in a small village in Tuscany and writes lyrically about food and setting and people, it's a little surprising (and fascinating) to read about the people and place she came from. For much of this book, she is a precocious, sassy, curious little girl, the 'accidental' youngest of three sisters, growing up in a small town in southern Georgia in the 1950s.  Her parents may have loved each other once, but now spend nights hurling accusations and glasses at each other. Mayes writes about her grandparents, the family's black maid and her extended family, about her mother's drinking,  about school and boys and first kisses, about her bigoted grandfather's reaction to the Kennedys and the Freedom Riders, ending with college and her first marriage.  Her anecdotes are horrifying or funny {I loved the one about her grandfather, who supported the family after her father's early death but kept records of Frances' phone calls to boys and deducted the cost of each one from her inheritance, with the family lawyer reading out the list}. Not an unhappy childhood, but one she seemed driven to escape from. But there's a strong pull that you can feel as you read; as the book opens, Mayes is on a book tour, spending the night in a southern city, and finds herself calling her husband to say that she wants to live in the South again.

As  in her books about Tuscany, a work of nonfiction written by a poet is a beautiful thing.:)   This book is also filled with lush descriptions of food, and places, even the bolts of cloth her mother stored in her closet for dressmaking. In the end, the writing carried me forward, even when the people and the place might not have, and I'm very glad I had a chance to read it.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.



JoAnn said...

Those things don't check any of my literary boxes either, yet I was tempted because it was Frances Mayes. Glad it turned out to be a good read :)

Cosy Books said...

Good for you on being an adventurous reader, Audrey! I am pathetically stuck in my anglophile ways and no doubt, miss a good tale along the way.