Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Number 2: A Valley in Italy: The Many Seasons of a Villa in Umbria, by Lisa St. Aubin de Terán

This is the second book I read about English speakers moving to Italy, and even though I read it in the late 1990s, it has stayed with me more than any other of this genré. It was written before the more famous Under the Tuscan Sun, which I read first and enjoyed—but I prefer A Valley in Italy, probably because St. Aubin de Terán interacted with and described the Italian people much more than did Frances Mayes. Her descriptions of the characters she meets and their small Italian village eccentricities are detailed and fascinating. One reviewer describes this as “a very personal memoir . . . a painting of a particular place at a particular time seen through particular eyes.”

I have to confess to a little jealousy, as her family was immediately welcomed into the community of about 400. I have lived off and on in San Salvatore, Italy, for about 10 months and haven’t come anywhere near to matching St. Aubin de Terán’s ability to integrate into the local community. She and her husband bought a huge estate on the edge of the small town of Villa Orsola in Umbria. Their home had been the center of community gatherings for many years, even when it was vacant, and it remained a focal point after they bought it. They put many people in the village to work restoring the house for more than a year, and during that time they lived in the unfinished rooms with their two children and two au pairs. The children were adopted by the community even more quickly than were their parents, and they often were the means of introducing their parents to the neighbors. Maybe if I were wealthy, had young children, bought a palazzo and hired villagers to remodel it, I would make friends more quickly, but none of these are possible right now.

Part of the story’s appeal is the strange life that St. Aubin de Terán led. The author herself is eccentric, both in the way she writes and lives her life, and her family is equally so. Her writing is colorful, quirky and often exaggerated, full of descriptions and opinions about the people she meets. I found myself asking how she could know so much about people she had just met, especially when she admits that she can’t always understand what they say. This may have something to do with the fact that she is primarily a novelist, so I think she takes what she observes to another level and writes what she thinks people may be thinking. Everyone forms opinions about the people they meet, and while most people hold their personal insights in close check, St. Aubin de Terán is more liberal and open in her judgments. Once I accepted that, I could put a damper on my skepticism and just enjoy the book for what it is. Besides that, I have a soft spot for quirky, free spirited people.

People either loved or hated this book, probably because so much of St. Aubin de Terán’s life, personality and style are on display. Here are what some of her detractors said in Amazon reviews:

As a lover of all things Italian, I have read many books and found this one to be so annoying that I could barely finish it. The book is less about Italy and becoming acculturated in the author’s new home town and more about how preciously eccentric St. Aubin’s family is.”

If you have little patience for pomposity and narcissism, skip this book.”

This is probably the most pretentious, irritating book I have ever encountered. “Her portrayal of Italians is condescending and patronizing.”

Those who enjoy reading about very eccentric, irresponsible and self absorbed people who seem to have difficulty relating to others, particularly their own children—the elder of which is referred to always as ‘the child’—might truly like this book.”

On the other hand, the positive reviews can be summed up by this more lengthy statement from reviewer Amy Burke: “This was a delicious book that brilliantly chronicles the author’s life in Italy with humor and joy—two components starkly absent in Under the Tuscan Sun. Perhaps because she is British, or because she is a bit wacky, Ms. St. Aubin de Terán writes with great affection and truly captures the eccentricity of the Italian village and its villagers. Her tales of her children and her au pairs and their interaction with the villagers and their new villa invoke a warmth and tone found only with someone who really loves her subjects. This book was all that Under the Tuscan Sun should have been, and I’m not sure why it has been less popular. It’s just great!”

The truth is that St. Aubin de Terán has indeed lived in unusual life. Raised in London, she ran off with an exiled Venezuelan bank robber and landowner when she was 16. According to an article by Cassandra Jardine in Independent.ie, “With just two words, South America, Jaime Terán swept Lisa St Aubin away from her home in Clapham, in south London. After spending time on the run in Europe, he then took her to the remote sugar estate that had been in his family since the time of the conquistadors. There, he ignored her, but for the occasional violent outburst; he was later diagnosed as schizophrenic. With Jaime talking of a suicide pact, Lisa finally escaped to England with Iseult, who was then only five. For two years, Jaime had his estranged wife and daughter chased around Europe until Iseult became a ward of court.”


After that, she married a Scottish poet and novelist, and she was with her third husband, painter Robbie Duff Scott, when she moved to Italy and wrote her memoir about buying and restoring one of the largest villas in the little community. The fact that the family has two Irish au pairs who are rarely needed and spend their days sleeping and their nights out crusing and dancing with the local Italian young men is one of the unusual features of the family dynamics. Add to this the information that Iseult, at age 15, is also out at all hours with the “Irish beauties” and you start getting the idea why people find the family’s lifestyle unusual. And like her mother, Iseult ends up marrying at 16. At times the book seems like a combination of Under the Tuscan Sun and Running with Scissors—but these are both excellent books, and so is A Valley in Italy. With her unique background and family life, St. Aubin de Terán comes about her eccentricity and writing style honestly. Her personality and family are genuine, even if out of the ordinary. She is honest and forthcoming about the unusual choices she had made, and she must have realized she would be opening herself up for criticism, but she went ahead and told the truth anyway. If readers can understand and come to terms with that, they may enjoy A Valley in Italy as much as I did.

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