By Frances Mayes
Penguin Random House/The Crown Publishing Group
Formats available: Hardcover, Paperback, E-copy, Audio
Pub Date: 4.1.14| Pages: 336
REVIEWER: Sophia Rose
Hardcover provided by publisher for review. No remuneration was exchanged and all opinions presented herein are my own except as noted.
A lyrical and evocative memoir from Frances Mayes, the Bard of Tuscany, about coming of age in the Deep South and the region’s powerful influence on her life.
The author of three beloved books about her life in Italy, including Under the Tuscan Sun and Every Day in Tuscany, Frances Mayes revisits the turning points that defined her early years in Fitzgerald, Georgia. With her signature style and grace, Mayes explores the power of landscape, the idea of home, and the lasting force of a chaotic and loving family.
From her years as a spirited, secretive child, through her university studies—a period of exquisite freedom that imbued her with a profound appreciation of friendship and a love of travel—to her escape to a new life in California, Mayes exuberantly recreates the intense relationships of her past, recounting the bitter and sweet stories of her complicated family: her beautiful yet fragile mother, Frankye; her unpredictable father, Garbert; Daddy Jack, whose life Garbert saved; grandmother Mother Mayes; and the family maid, Frances’s confidant Willie Bell.
Under Magnolia is a searingly honest, humorous, and moving ode to family and place, and a thoughtful meditation on the ways they define us, or cause us to define ourselves. With acute sensory language, Mayes relishes the sweetness of the South, the smells and tastes at her family table, the fragrance of her hometown trees, and writes an unforgettable story of a girl whose perspicacity and dawning self-knowledge lead her out of the South and into the rest of the world, and then to a profound return home.
After reading the author’s Under the Tuscan Sun and enjoying her meandering writing style and descriptive language, I decided to give her memoir a go. As one whose family roots have only recently been transplanted (I am second generation Italian American), I am fascinated by those who are surrounded by family and tradition like one finds in the Deep American South.
Frances Mayes tackles her memoir after a book tour in Mississippi gives her the sudden desire to revisit her youth so she and her husband choose North Carolina rather than her native Georgia for their Southern replanting. This memoir is the story of her 1950 and 60’s southern Georgia smalltown youthful years. Although really, she is telling the broader story of the South itself as it shakes off the past to a certain extent and moves toward what it is today.
Mayes opens the door and allows the reader behind the facade of her dysfunctional family home growing up with two alcoholics who had an unhealthy acrimonious love for each other. She is the third of three daughters when her father wanted a son and she was the late whoopsie baby at that. Her childhood mainstay was the family’s day cook and cleaning woman, granddaughter of a slave, Willie Bell.
I enjoyed her writing style that manages to tell the brutal truth while couching it so it feels like a story of yesteryear and coming of age. It’s the story of resilience and finding oneself. I won’t say I loved it or was riveted- it wasn’t that kind of book, but I was thoroughly engaged and inside the author’s world of the past. And lord, do I really want those Southern recipes she mentioned.
PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE: http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/208498/under-magnolia-by-frances-mayes/