The poet and novelist Frances Mayes created a cultural moment (one that is arguably still ongoing) with Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy, the 1996 memoir of her buying and renovating a neglected villa outside Cortona, Italy. The book remained on the New York Times bestseller list for two years. Since then, Tuscany has been her beat, and no one’s complaining. Women in Sunlight is a novel, and we can imagine its fictional goings-on with visions of Bramasole, Mayes’s Tuscan perch, in our minds—pure catnip. Women in Sunlight was published last week by Crown, an imprint of Crown Publishing, a division of Penguin Random House. Frances Mayes will sign books on at 2pm Saturday, April 13, at Litchfield Books in Pawleys Island, South Carolina; also at noon on Saturday, April 28, at Givens Books in Lynchburg, Virginia. For a complete list of events, including California, Missouri and Oklahoma events, go to FrancesMayesBooks. This excerpt is from the chapter “Arrivals.”
BY CHANCE, I witnessed the arrival of the three American women. I’d been reading in my garden for a couple of hours, taking a few notes and making black dots in the margins, a way to locate interesting sentences later without defacing the book. Around four thirty on these early darkening days, some impulse toward dinner quickens, and I began to consider the veal chops in the fridge and to think of cutting a bunch of the chard still rampaging through the orto. Chard with raisins, garlic, and orange peel. Thyme and parsley for the tiny potatoes Colin dug at the end of summer. Since the nights were turning chilly, I put down my book, grabbed the wood-carrier from the house, and walked out to the shed to fetch olive tree prunings for the fireplace grill.
Yet another escape. I am putting off writing about Margaret, my difficult and rigorous friend, whose writing I admired. Oh, still admire, but this project feels more like trying to strike mildewed matches—I keep rereading instead of writing. I’ve read her Stairs to Palazzo del Drago a dozen times.
A book can be a portal. Each one I’ve written firmly sealed off one nautiline chamber (Is nautiline a word? Meaning pertaining to a nautilus?), and then opened into the next habitable space. Always before, my subjects chose me. I’m the happy follower of fleeting images that race ahead, sometimes just out of sight, of lines that U-
turn and break like the downside of heartbeats. Isn’t boustrophedon the ongoing form of writing that mimics the turns an ox makes when plowing a field?
At times, writing conflagrates, a vacant-lot fire started by bad boys. That’s when I’m elated. But this time, I chose my friend as the subject. I feel as I did in college, slugging out a research paper on “The Concept of Time in T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.” I enjoyed the work but immediately felt humiliated by my limits.
I’m easily distractible. Those shriveled apples on the third terrace, still golden and dangling as brightly as in the myth of the three graces, lure me to make a galette. Fitzy has burrs in his silky hair and needs brushing. My own hair has turned unruly. I would like to have a few friends over for polenta with mushrooms and sausage, now that the funghi porcini are sprouting under every oak tree. My mind surfs over endless diversions.
When you’re propelled by a sense of duty, you’re easy to derail.
As I picked dried branches from the woodpile, I looked down from the upper olive terrace as Gianni, the local driver, turned sharply into the long drive of the Malpiedi place across the road, his white van crackling over dry stubble. Malpiedi—Bad Feet. I’ve always loved the Italian names that remind me of ones my friends and I adopted when we played Wild Indians in the vacant lot by my family’s house in Coral Gables. Wandering Bear, Deer Heart, Straight Arrow. One friend chose Flushing Toilet. But here it’s Bucaletto, Hole in the Bed; Zappini, Little Hoe; Tagliaferro, Iron Cutter; and stranger, Taglialagamba, He Cuts the Leg—maybe a butcher specializing in leg of lamb? Cipollini, Little Onion; Tagliasopra, Cut Above; Bellocchio, Beautiful Eye—how alive those names are.
Early in my years in Italy, fascinated by every syllable, I used to collect them. In hotels when there were telephone books, I’d read the names at night for the pleasure of coming upon Caminomerde, Chimney Shit— there’s a story there—and Pippisecca, Dry Pipe (or Penis). The sublime Botticelli? Little Barrel.
The Bad Feet are gone now. I attended the wake for Luisa, the wife, who had an erotically decorated cake at her last birthday—figures like those feasting frescoes from Pompeii in the Naples museum, where the phallus is so large it’s carried forth on a tray. Passing by their table in the restaurant where she was celebrating with friends, I was shocked to look down at the garish pink and green cake everyone was laughing over. After that, I was embarrassed when I saw plump, stoop-shouldered, rabbit-eyed Tito, her husband. She died of diverticulitis, some sudden rupture I couldn’t help but think was caused by too much cake, and Tito followed all too shortly. He did choke, but on pork arista, with no one around to perform the Heimlich. I try not to imagine his rheumy eyes popping out of their sockets. The daughter, Grazia, who snorts then brays when she laughs, painted some rooms, put in a dishwasher, and listed the house for lease before she went to live with her failing aunt in town.
Reprinted from Women in Sunlight: A Novel. Copyright © 2017 by Frances Mayes. Published by Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.