Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

'Under Magnolia' Follows Frances Mayes Back to Her Roots in Small- Town Georgia

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

'Under Magnolia' Follows Frances Mayes Back to Her Roots in Small- Town Georgia

Article excerpt

Reviewed by Danny Heitman for The Barnes & Noble Review

With the publication of "Under the Tuscan Sun" in 1996, Frances Mayes established herself not only as a bestselling writer but as a corporate commodity. Mayes's popular memoir of the charming life she built while restoring a villa in provincial Italy spawned a cottage industry of related projects, including a movie, several literary sequels, and even a Frances Mayes furniture line.

That kind of branding can reduce an author to a franchise, a creature of formula rather than revelation. But in "A Year in the World," Mayes's 2006 travelogue, she displayed a willingness to leave the almost uniformly pastel tone of her earlier books to touch on darker complexities. She recounted a disturbing visit from a delusional visitor to her San Francisco home; the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; and what these deeply disruptive tragedies taught her about the continuing need to seek wonder in the everyday.

Under Magnolia, Mayes's new memoir of her Southern youth, marks an even greater departure from her Tuscan books, although fans of her European sojourns will find much to like in her account of life in post[226 128 145 ]World War II small-town Georgia. She begins "Under Magnolia" by explaining how her Southern heritage informs her love of Mediterranean culture:

"The complex interconnections of family and friends, the real caring for one another, the incessant talk, emphasis on ancestors, the raucous humor, the appreciation of the bizarre, the storytelling, the fatalism, the visiting, the grand occasions - in both Tuscany and the South these traits offer an elaborate continuity for solitary individuals. Deeply fatalistic, Southerners, again like Tuscans, can be the most private people on the globe."

Beyond this analogy, Tuscany remains largely offstage in "Under Magnolia." The abiding landscape of the book is the terrain of the former Confederacy - a place, writes Mayes, where nothing "stirs me as much as the narcotizing fragrance of the land, jasmine, ginger lilies, gardenia, and honeysuckle blending, fetid and sweet."

That passage, in which the scent of transcendence blithely mingles with a hint of death, underscores the complicated sensibility of Mayes's story. …

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