Book review

‘A Year in Provence’, by Peter Mayle

The setting of this creative nonfiction book, Provence, in the south of France, conjures up feelings of nostalgia for me, as I spent many sun-soaked, soporific, childhood holidays in the region. This is enhanced by the fact it was written and published so long ago – in 1989, around the time of my family’s visits – and as such the Provence described no longer exists, except in memory.

The memoir is structured with one chapter for each month of the year, beginning in January. Each chapter recounts some of the things that happened to Mayle that month, offering a glimpse into the everyday lives of the characters he encounters, the movement of the seasons and their impact on life and farming, and the cultural importance of food and eating rituals. The overarching story that connects the chapters is of the renovations the author and his wife are carrying out on their property, and the cultivating of grapes in its attached vineyard.

The book is full of descriptions of the people, place and meals, and these elements are brought to life in a gentle and humorous way. Not a great deal of dialogue is used, but the characters still feel real due to little details in relation to their appearance and behaviour, for example, ‘The proprietor of the restaurant, a man who had somehow perfected the art of hovering despite his considerable size, was dressed for the day in a velvet smoking jacket and bow tie. His moustache, sleek with pomade, quivered with enthusiasm’. Some of the language used to describe the place and food is quite poetic, such as, ‘The cherries were ripening, the winter skeletons of the vines had disappeared under a cover of bright green leaves’, while there is some use of dated language, for instance, ‘peasants’, which is not used with irony.

There is some use of basic French vocabulary, for instance, ‘la grippe’ and ‘dérailleur’, which is nice to see, but not often translated, explained, or obvious from context; the author assumes readers have some knowledge of French, but those who do not may feel hindered. Mayle plays down his own linguistic ability, yet recounts complex conversations he had with tradespeople, presumably in French, which makes me wonder at the accuracy or his embellishment of what he reports as being said.

There is no personal information offered by Mayle, in fact he doesn’t even tell the reader his wife’s name, and doesn’t explain how or why they came to live in Provence, or when the moved there in relation to when the book began. The book is of its time, but the current trend in creative nonfiction is for the author to offer more of themselves, so as a contemporary reader I would have liked to know something more about the author, and have seen some introspection or personal development. Instead, Mayle paints himself as quite distant from his subject; a passive observer, watching events unfolding around him, and responding with stoicism and amusement rather than frustration. I felt as though he was protecting the privacy of his family and friends, by focusing instead on the locals.

A lot of French stereotypes are used, with all Mayle’s local acquaintances shrugging, driving around blind corners at full speed, and drinking wine at lunch time. There is also a lack of facts, history, or reference to real world events, which would have offered more interest to me.

All in all, I enjoyed the trip down memory lane, and the book has provided me with some aspects to be mindful of in my own writing.

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