‘ Ah, the mythic South, the only swath of America not strangled by the deadly literal mind.’ Frances Mayes.
Once, in another lifetime, a man I loved asked me to live with him in Tuscany. There we could live, love, write and argue –together- though a cook and a gardener would clearly be needed, preferably a couple ( he had clearly thought this through).Impossibly Romantic of course, but that plea,unlike many others which had preceded it and indeed followed it, struck a deep chord. Yes, yes, when the children are grown, let’s do that.
The rest of the tale isn’t worth my energy to recount, suffice to say, I am safely on the Island with Dear Maman, MOSTest and my darling penguins. The man, well , who would know, but I’m certain his current existence has suitably Renaissance like qualities- think circles, think Dante, and a hell of ones own making, bless his heart.
The point of all this is, there is nothing new Under the Tuscan Sun, and Frances Mayes is the Tuscan Sun. But Frances was born in Georgia in the American South, and Under Magnolia is her memoir of returning to that place, that way of life.
Mayes has a ‘cloak’ of Magnolia Grandiflora in Tuscany, but her earliest memories of Magnolia blooms are Southern‘primitive and elegant’.
‘ What other flower is there to lie on the dark wood coffin of your father?’
Gardenia,( fabulous according to Mayes, for kissing behind) jasmine, wisteria, honeysuckle, the combination ’fetid and sweet’. This is Mayes and America’s Garden of Eden.We naturally start to question not why it took Mayes so long to return as why she ever left? Her tale unwinds like a languid Georgian afternoon,events papering over the cracks, tensions and desires- both within the family and without. .
….’secrets kept in order to protect some one from who you are….’
Let me lob some names at you. William Faulkner, who Mayes rightly reveres, Tennesse Williams, John Williams,the author of Stoner- read it!John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. All these are great books and you should read them and I intend to write about them, but not here. This is about the women of the South, black, white, wealthy, dirt poor, fulfilled, despairing.
Read Pearl Buck’s The Angry Wife and Kathryn Stockett’s The Help ( and try to view a very glamorous spread in Vanity Fair including Stockett and other Southern women writers, draped in gowns that Scarlett O Hara would just adore ).Read Mary Karr’s memoirs The Liars Club and Lit, there is always the dark side. Always.Read Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird. Has anyone ever written about the Southern United States better?
If bad men have been a constant in my life over the past decade, so it should be noted have fabulous women. I try not to write about my dear friends too much, it‘s unfair. I will simply say, in my experience, women of the American South exhibit grace, dignity,unfailing goodness and so much sass you could use it to power a city. Embrace them as your friend if you are lucky enough to meet one, they will never let you down.
Thank you Pearl Buck, thank you Margaret Mitchell. Give me more, Frances Mayes, Kathryn Stockett, Mary Karr
… fuck Tuscany , I want to live and love in Georgia.