Penguin 2008, (originally published 1989)
Synopsis- Who hasn’t dreamed, on a mundane Monday or frowzy Friday, of chucking it all in and packing off to the south of France? Provençal cookbooks and guidebooks entice with provocatively fresh salads and azure skies, but is it really all Côtes-du-Rhône and fleur-de-lis? Author Peter Mayle answers that question with wit, warmth, and wicked candor in A Year in Provence, the chronicle of his own foray into Provençal domesticity.
Beginning, appropriately enough, on New Year’s Day with a divine luncheon in a quaint restaurant, Mayle sets the scene and pits his British sensibilities against it. “We had talked about it during the long gray winters and the damp green summers,” he writes, “looked with an addict’s longing at photographs of village markets and vineyards, dreamed of being woken up by the sun slanting through the bedroom window.” He describes in loving detail the charming, 200-year-old farmhouse at the base of the Lubéron Mountains, its thick stone walls and well-tended vines, its wine cave and wells, its shade trees and swimming pool–its lack of central heating. Indeed, not 10 pages into the book, reality comes crashing into conflict with the idyll when the Mistral, that frigid wind that ravages the Rhône valley in winter, cracks the pipes, rips tiles from the roof, and tears a window from its hinges. And that’s just January.
Review- A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle was a book on my TBR list of books set in France in preparation for my European honeymoon. Published in the 80’s, this delightfully witty and observant memoir by Englishman Mayle provides a cultural insight- from an outsider- into the rural lifestyle in Provence, France.
I am so glad I picked up this book, though it wasn’t a good idea to attempt to read just one chapter prior to meeting friends for dinner because I didn’t want to put it down! I wanted more and then I had it at the back of my mind for the entire evening. I love Mayle’s style of storytelling and his detailed observations never lacking in satire as he tries to make sense of the language, eating habits, the people and of course the seasons of one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations. He places the reader directly into the setting and had me fantasising about being on that very property, eating those meals and chatting to his quirky neighbours.
I’ve read an abundance of travel memoirs (I love to live vicariously through the storytellers) but what is quite unique about A Year in Provence is the absence of backstory and self-disclosures usually characteristic of this genre. The story begins on New Year’s Day and the chapters are divided into months spreading out across the course of the year. Peter and his wife are already in their purchased farmhouse in Provence, there’s no background as to how they came to be there, I have little information about his family, and I don’t even have a picture of what he looks like. But I learnt about the author’s personality through the way he saw the world, the little nuances he picked up on when interacting with the locals and though at times he was rather sarcastic he’s doesn’t shy away from pointing out the flaws of the English either. I’ve read some reviews of A Year in Provence that weren’t privy to the English sense of humour and perhaps found his accounts condescending but I actually found him quite clever and had many moments where I laughed out loud and just had to share passages aloud to my partner.
I really enjoy learning about new cultures, how people live, what they eat, their habits and traditions, their language and superstitions and so I found Mayle’s annotations quite fascinating and perceptive. I’ve read so many memoirs set in Tuscany that I always thought I wanted a farmhouse in rural Tuscany… but after reading this story my fantasises of living abroad are now leaning toward rural France even though I’ve failed miserably at trying to learn the language. In fact I could wholeheartedly relate to this passage in the first chapter of A Year in Provence:
“We had been here often before as tourists, desperate for our annual ration of two or three weeks of true het and sharp light. Always when we left, with peeling noses and regret, we promised ourselves that one day we would live here. We had talked about it during the long grey winters and the damp green summers, looke dwith an addict’s longing at photographs of village markets and vineyards, dreamed of being woken up by the sun slanting thorugh the bedroom window. And now, somewhat to our surprise, we had done it. We had committed ourselves. We had bought a house, taken French lessons, said our goodbyes, shipped over our two dogs and become foreigners.”
My partner and I are the kind to browse real estate window fronts whenever we are away… just to have a look at what’s available (not that we could afford it!) Then we spend weeks or months fantasising about having a holiday home at that place until we become distracted by another holiday destination. I enjoyed this book so much I convinced my husband to cancel our accommodation in Nice and visit Provence instead!
A Year in Provence is a charming, witty account of how an English couple made a farmhouse in Provence their home, how life evolves with the seasons and how to learn to let go of our expectations and stay in the present moment. Highly recommended!
A Year in Provence can be purchased from Fishpond and other leading book retailers
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