Readers united in droves back in the '90s to savor the adventures and revelations of Frances Mayes as she restored a crumbling villa (Under The Tuscan Sun) and discovered much about life, beauty and things that matter.
Now Mayes is sharing even more about herself with Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir.
The woman who fled the sweltering monotony of small-town Georgia as soon as she came of age, realized a few years back, after decades in San Francisco and in Tuscany, that the tendrils of her Southern heritage had been firmly braided into her soul. She felt suddenly compelled to buy a house on Southern soil (North Carolina this time). And the internal currents reawakened by that decision propelled her to prospect this earlier period of her life and write yet another memoir.
She tells of growing up (in the 1940s and '50s) with hard-drinking parents who were devastatingly attractive, dysfunctional (at about the same level as most Southern parents who become the stuff of memoirs), and stuck in time and culture. Unpredictable and sometimes explosive, her parents seemed willing to let their acutely observant, headstrong daughter mature in her own ways, as long as she caused no public embarrassment.
With perfect-pitch language, Mayes unblinkingly describes her growing-up years — populated with people named Edna Lula, Willie Bell, Son Junior and Narcissa. There were black housekeepers who understood boundaries, and patriarchs who did not. Fathers worked and mothers played bridge. Little girls learned how to flirt and employ honeyed tones to manipulate.
One can almost taste the mushiness of "a pot of once-green beans falling apart in salt pork"; one can almost smell the cloying scent of honeysuckle, gardenias and overripe peaches that infuse the always-too-humid air.
Hers was an interesting youth, filled with books (in which she sought peace and answers), the tension of changing times and unchanging people, and a relentless determination to find her pace and place.
One tip: Skip Mayes' preface. It's an overly professorial discourse, almost treatise-like, that could discourage some to tuck into the actual story. That would be a shame.
Sharon Peters is author of Trusting Calvin: How A Dog Helped Heal a Holocaust Survivor's Heart. She has lived in Georgia and Mississippi.
Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir
By Frances Mayes
***½ out of four