There are some things that pretty much everyone knows about, no questions asked. Everyone has heard about Dante, Romeo and Juliet and Starbucks. If you don’t, or meet someone who doesn’t, there a few raised eyebrows get thrown around. That’s how I felt going into A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle. It’s one of those books that everyone knows, everyone hears about, but not everyone has read. I expected it to be a bit like Elaine with the English Patient; popular, but not my cup of tea.
So I decided to read it, just to test out whether or not it would live up to the hype and to see what the hype was. Now I can say that I understand it, but I also don’t. I was glad that I read it, but I didn’t love it. It was different then what I expected, but also was exactly what I expected.
A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle describes precisely that, a year in Provence. There isn’t a story here, this is memoir pure and simple. More than a book with an obvious plot, it describes an experience and tries to get people to understand a time and a place that isn’t here. It’s in Provence. It’s as if you were reading a normal diary. Sure, he’s refurbishing the house, but there isn’t drama. It’s observation, which is both interesting and dull.
The book is organized by month, describing what happens in Provence during each month. While the idea of refurbishing a house provides a bit of plot, it’s incidental. You’re opening this book to witness another world. There were moments when it felt like Mayle was describing a photo as opposed to describing events in his life. That’s because it’s pretty static. Sure, the scenery changes as the seasons drift in and out, but there’s not much more than that. Apart from eating different meals and getting used to the way that construction functions in Provence, Mayle doesn’t really do much during the year.
The great appeal of this book is for the arm chair traveler and that’s exactly what it reads like: a guidebook. Sure, it’s a well written-guidebook, but you half expect Mayle to start describing the history of the building in which he is eating his billionth extravagant lunch. But don’t expect to pack your bag and head to the Provence that he’s describing. One of my favorite points about the book was that it was extremely dated. The book was written in the eighties and is rife with references to how everything will change in 1992
because I will be born because France will join the European Economic Community. I’m willing to bet that a current traveller in Provence isn’t going to stumble upon quite so many idyllic, charming, hidden restaurants serving up the perfect peasant food today. Instead, they’ll meet what Mayle found as he drove up the Cote d’Azur: tourists, tourists, tourists, tourists…and, oh yeah, more tourists.
So, did I like A Year in Provence? Yes and no. I appreciate that it was well written, but it’s boring. It’s really a genre onto itself that shouldn’t even be called a memoir or travelogue but experiential guidebook. If you’re looking for a way to escape, to read a page or two a day, then you’ll love A Year in Provence. If you’re looking for a book that will talk about living abroad, living in France and living life, then there are plenty other books that will serve you better.
Have you read A Year in Provence? What did you think? Do you ever read guidebooks for fun? i sometimes do…
Also: Oh my gosh there was a hurricane in New York (and I missed a chance to talk to the BBC about it, but that’s besides the point)! Luckily my family and neighborhood seem to be fine. I hope everyone else in New York, everyone I love and all those gorgeous cafes are doing well. You guys are in my thoughts 🙂