I read Frances Mayes Under the Tuscan Sun shortly after it was published in 1997, and that hooked me on the genre of memoirs about people moving to Italy, buying homes in Italy, or visiting Italy for extended stays. Now I have read at least twenty of these, and I would like to name my favorites, starting with my top choice. More will come in successive entries.
Extra Virgin, by Annie Hawes, 2001
While Frances Mayes did a nice job of describing menus, fabulous foods and landscapes and the joys and pitfalls of buying and remodeling a home in Italy, Annie Hawes goes deeper. While she and her sister do not easily assimilate into the small community they try to join, the book tells the often amusing story of their attempts to do so. In the process, Hawes tells far more about the authentic Italian characters she encounters than does Mayes. Hawes made plenty of mistakes; she comes across as a naive English girl, which she initially was, and the stories she tells entertain while revealing insights behind the seemingly strange peasant beliefs and the everyday life of a small Italian town on the Ligurian coast. It helps that she lived in the town for twenty years before writing the book, which gave her plenty of time to accumulate stories and understand the people and their culture.
Amazon reviewer Gothamannie writes: “Whereas the Mayes series focus on the earthly pleasures of Italy, Extra Virgin is about character—from the social protocol amid the local gentry at the village coffee shop to the laughs the sisters endure when they take another helping of antipasti or primi (shame on them!) Here is an outsider’s honest, non-academic attempt to dissect the prejudices between Northern & Southern Italians—to probe their grudges and prejudices—and maybe even bend the rules a little (never too much!) Yet the reader never gets the sense that the Italians aren’t warm to the author—on the contrary, despite the occasional playful ridicule, they are portrayed as kind, generous, resourceful, rugged and hardworking . . . It serves as a terrific and necessary guidebook cloaked in a travelogue—it has the fantasy aspect of moving to Italy, but it’s done with a heaping dose of reality.”
Hawes writes descriptively without being flowery or poetic, and her wry and witty observations will keep the reader smiling. She comes across as neither infatuated with nor cynical about Italy, but one can see that the country gradually reveals its charms to her. Hawes has written two follow-up books about her later experiences, both of which continue in the same style, so if you like Extra Virgin as much as I did, you can move on to Ripe for the Picking and Journey to the South.