oA somewhat Disastrous Quest

I’m supposed to be reading books about Adultery, but darlings, really? It’s a beautiful sunny day on the Island, and a pair of woodpigeons are courting outside the treehouse where I write – so I have decided instead to escape to Tuscany for a few hours.
I love my Kindle, I really do, infact without it Thea Brooke Bibliotherapy would not exist. The Island is incredibly remote, and the delivery of packages( mainly books and tins of tuna) is haphazard and fraught with risk and danger. Those of a romantic bent no doubt envision a romantic rowboat, powered only by a craggy but exceptionally good looking man in a beautiful handcrafted sweater( from the Faeroe Islands, or the delicate hands of Thea Brooke ), braving the elements to make sure the penguins are not without supplies. Handing over the package , his hand lingers for just that extra moment on my outstretched flipper…. As you see, I have given this fantasy quite some thought. It’s particularly useful when one of the penguins is expounding on a decades long interfamilial territory dispute, or Dear Maman is recounting her teenage years. The phrase ‘we had a lot of harmless fun’ is the usual trigger for a few moments of living beautifully in the mind. This is not the time to describe to you the reality of the Islands delivery service, Miss Criswell’s book is getting colder by the minute, but darlings it is fair to say that if ‘Mary from the Dairy(‘and Post Office, Thea, and Post Office’)’had any idea of the thoughts that cross my mind as she noses the dinghy with it’s two stroke outboard into the Bay, clad alluringly as always in her pink and teal shell suit, it would be a long time before I ever held a hard copy of anything again.


All this is an incredibly long winded way of saying that when I ‘opened’ Jennifer Criswell’s At Least You’re in Tuscany: A Somewhat Disastrous Quest for the Sweet Life,  I wished I was holding the book proper. The cover is just so beautiful and promises so much. Tuscany has been much on my mind, after reviewing Frances Mayes Under Magnolia last week, and remembering my own thoughtless dreams of living there, which I will do, one day, penguin and (bAd) puppy free. Mayes Under the Tuscan Sun was charming and well written, following the style of Peter Mayle ‘s A Year in Provence. It’s impossible now to remember the literary world before these hugely successful memoirs of chasing the Good Life in Europe with all their attendant characters and daily drama’s began hitting our shelves from the ‘80’s.

Distinct from the more literary approach of the expat extended house party/ summer vacation…Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home and Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow being two recent and particularly fine examples- oh and John Mortimer’s Summer’s Lease still impresses- books like Miss Criswell’s aim to explain the desire to ‘change one’s life,’ throw it all in and give the dream a go. No words more aptly describe Miss Criswell’s journey than her own:

“ Jennifer Criswell is a lawyer-turned-writer who chucked her legal briefs to pursue her love of writing after a life changing trip to Italy in 2001. Jennifer lives and writes in a small hill town in Tuscany with her side kick of a Weimaraner, Cinder.”

This information my darlings can be found at the back of the book in a section titled “About the Author” and this is the best of it. I am sure Jennifer Criswell is a very nice woman and on checking out her website and discovering Cinder is now no longer with us, I felt truly sorry .Weimaraners are beautiful stately creatures and Cinder (short for Cinderella, though Ashputtle would surely have been more apt for a German Hound, n’est pas?) must have caused quite the stir in Montepulciano.

I wanted to laugh, cry, to fall in love…and so it would appear did Miss Criswell. The thing is, and so many people(usually well known authors teaching impossible to get into/ afford graduate MFA courses in the middle of the United States, say for instance , oh I don’t know, IOWA) will tell you, it is not enough to have simply done something. Had the experience ( which let’s face it, in the case of moving to Italy to change your life has been done before) it’s what you find in  that experience that matters, how you tell the tale . Miss Criswell has searched for the tale, mined everything, and every relationship to find it( I hope she is very grateful few of her Italian neighbours are fluent in English, but wonder if her fellow expats are still speaking to her, mind you she was kinder about them). The word I am searching for is adolescent. Jennifer Criswell is a teenage girl trapped in the body of a forty year old woman, with all the attendant self entitlement and petulance. Every man sparkles at her and only her,married or not- clearly she is the most attractive thing that has ever crossed their path and they want her. Miss Criswell is then horrified to learn that she has developed a reputation as the’ town bike’. Her grasping crone of an Italian landlady rips her off. No one will give her a job, her papers take forever to be processed…but by far the greatest indignity of all is still to come as she is forced to, brace yourself, live on canned tuna, yes, canned tuna( the penguins really felt no empathy for her by this point). That she is able to tell us she is living this way while shagging a married Sicilian greengrocer, but won’t take free vegetables because that would make her feel like a prostitute, and exhibits absolutely no sense of irony while doing so, says it all. Surely a free turnip wouldn’t go astray?

Two things finally did for this book for me in the end, fabulous cover or not. One, her nasty and puerile description of an Antipodean chef who has paid her for her translation services when she is on the bones of her ass, surely a small thank you would have been more appropriate- and this( keep in mind that  Miss Criswell has thus far quoted freely from her neighbours -generously -using direct speech )..
….” When people heard that I was a writer, they immediately mentioned Under the Tuscan Sun. I quickly discovered that many Tuscans did not think highly of the book or its author Frances Mayes, most of those I spoke to referring to her as ‘quella donna.’ That woman. They felt she’s unfairly stereotyped the Tuscan people in the book and they really disliked the movie…”

Only one woman in this Italian hilltown is behaving like ‘that woman’ Miss Criswell and it is not Frances Mayes. Badly done, totally uncalled for, and a bit of an own goal given Miss Criswell’s physical similarity to America’s most famous ‘that woman.’ As this book finishes we can feel Miss Criswells unspoken desire to write a sequel, to tell us more. Grow up first Miss Criswell, work at your writing,learn from your mistakes and missteps, read more. Can I suggest starting with Under Magnolia by Frances Mayes? It is lyrical and hauntingly beautiful, and by far the best book I have read thus far this year.

Thea Brooke


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