Many readers are familiar with Peter Mayle's story of a life saved and savored in A Year in Provence . Answering his readers' inevitable yearning for another glimpse into his life, Mayle brings us his aptly named follow-up novel, Encore Provence: New Adventures in the South of France.
This is a book of "second impressions." Mayle's first stint in the French region of Provence tamed his frantic urban pace. The refined and not-so-refined mannerisms of the Provençal people, climate, land, and culture fascinated him. Then, after a four-year hiatus in the U.S., Mayle returned to this land of lavender and leisurely lunches.
More than a return to a country, however, this is a return to a land of a simple and deliberate lifestyle, his second childhood. Mayle returns a bit wiser after surprise encounters and the luck of circumstance defined his initial experience. Encore Provence is a purposeful (and successful) quest to capture the conversations, time schedules, cuisine, and otherwise enchanting rhythms that flow together to create the music of life in Provence.
Mayle describes a world that does not fit with the French stereotype of high fashion and posh avenues. Paris this is not. There is no room for the perfection of Versailles-like gardens in this world where the scraggy olive tree thrives and fields of lavender overflow without any regard for borders. Likewise, if any of his characters lack in social graces, we are far too occupied with their quirky intrigues to notice. We learn of a man who refuses to let the nuisance of an aging body hinder his life's pleasure of truffle hunting. Mayle introduces us to a connoisseur whose sensitive palate is dedicated to the rich green subtleties of olive oil. We also welcome an exuberant storyteller as he gives his finest performance, enthusiastically detailing the perfect scenario for his own death. These are people of full, consuming passions.
Time is counted, doled, meted, and rationed in the outside world. But Mayle's Provençal clock is an invisible pacemaker that does nothing more than herald another glorious mealtime lest the stomach forget. And with Mayle running the show, you are not likely to overlook a culinary opportunity. His infatuation with the unhurried lunchtime ceremony is as headstrong as a teenage boy's interest in a shapely pin-up girl. From bouillabaisse in Marseilles to truffles in Carpentras, food is as vital to Mayle's portrait as it is to human survival.
Almost as important as the food itself is how it is consumed. Mayle happily evaluates various eating tactics, such as the unexpected appetite of an American beauty editor, which earns two thumbs up. The silent reverence of a couple over their foie gras is panned as much too serious. And as the French businessmen clamor from the first course to the last, they win his approval for their exuberance.
Any attempt to discredit his admiration for Provence will undoubtedly be countered. This is evidenced in his witty, informative attack on New York Times food critic Ruth Reichl's conclusion that Mayle's dreamlike Provence "never existed." Current trends are on her side in this age where a jaded attitude makes for the most interesting fodder. But Mayle doesn't succumb, and Provence shines. He has compiled a mini-guidebook categorizing his knowledge of Provençal essentials: wine, markets, cheese.... Reichl, he convinces us, must have lost her mind.
With a feast of characters, landscapes, and gastronomic delights to choose from, Provence seems a dream to depict. But Mayle's voice is as much a treasure as the Provençal culture it chronicles. To call him a mere narrator would be an insult. He forsakes the objectivity of a narrator by being an eager participant in his own story. He is a storyteller, a comic, a photographer of the senses, a Brother Grimm of travel writing.
Mayle's lyrical account of lifestyle and land ensures that those of us who have visited Provence will relive its most endearing nuances and charms. And for those of us who have yet to experience its pleasure? We are just as lucky. Encore Provence leaves us with the feeling that we have experienced this irresistible land anyway.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
After a four-year leave, Mayle is back in the region he described in his bestselling A Year in Provence and Toujours Provence--and the British author's fans will be pleased that he decided to return to his adopted homeland, for his writing is as charming and witty as ever. In the first chapter, "Second Impressions," Mayle explains that he and his wife quit the convenient, efficient life in America for the "smell of thyme in the fields" and "the swirl and jostle of Sunday-morning markets" of Provence. Mayle goes on to make hash of former New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl's disparaging assessment of Provence, apparently based on a single August visit, and heaps scorn on those who consider themselves to be "travelers--intelligent, well-mannered, cultured"--rather than tourists (as he proudly labels himself). The author then assists future tourists by naming his favorite markets, vineyards, bakeries, chambres d'h tes, even places to go for the best olive oil or honey. A chapter called "A Beginner's Guide to Marseille" is equally informative and offers the little-known fact that "La Marseillaise" was actually composed in Strasbourg. Mayle enticingly recounts his peregrinations around the truffle markets and his searches for the perfect corkscrew or melon, but it's his ability to capture the subtle cultural peculiarities that distinguishes his writing. Upon first arriving in France from the U.S., Mayle observes, "I think it was the sight of a man power-washing his underpants [with a hose] that really brought home the difference, cultural and otherwise, between the old world and the new." Line drawings not seen by PW.
After the astounding success of A Year in Provence (LJ 4/1/90) and Toujours Provence (LJ 5/1/99), Mayle and his wife moved to East Hampton, Long Island. But something was missing: "an entire spectrum of sights and sounds and smells and sensations that we had taken for granted in Provence, from the smell of thyme in the fields to the swirl and jostle of Sunday-morning markets." After four years, the Mayles returned to the region. Unlike A Year in Provence, whose chapters were organized month by month, this is a hodgepodge collection of essays on a variety of topics, from Mayle's first impressions on coming back to a charming piece about a school that trains blind children in the art of smelling perfume. There is a snide attack on former restaurant critic Ruth Reichl, and Mayle ends with a defensive postscript disputing charges by his British critics that his books have ruined the region by attracting hordes of tourists. "Provence is still beautiful," he writes. "Vast areas of it are still wild and empty." Mayle fans and patrons who enjoyed Frances Mayes's Under the Tuscan Sun (LJ 9/1/96) will want this. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/1/99.]--Wilda Williams, "Library Journal" Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Having served 15 years as a writer and executive in the advertising industry in New York, Mayle here sends back his seventh account of life in the south of France where he has found refuge. Among his latest adventures are a meal in a converted gas station and a rendezvous with the very best bouillabaisse. Index? Ha! If you are in that much hurry you would not appreciate it anyway. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknew.com)
Mayle is the antidote to an over-wired age and its dot-commandoes....The ground may be a bit well-worn, but c'est la vie.
NY Times Book Review
...[A]nother of his literary canapes....[Mayle's] writing does have a certain charming jauntiness...
The bestselling author of A Year in Provence (1990) and Toujours Provence (1991) once again sings the praises of his cherished domain in a collection of witty and entertaining sketches. Mayle's pieces range from reportage on the perfume business ("How To Be a Nose"), travelog ("A Beginner's Guide to Marseille"), storytelling ("The Unsolved Murder of the Handsome Butcher"), and memoir ("Eight Ways To Spend a Summer's Afternoon"). What unites them is the author's presence. Mayle himself is always part of the scene, witnessing, participating, and reacting. Whether writing about olive oil, truffles, melons, corkscrews, or house hunting, his subtext is the French character, or rather, the character of the Provence native, of whom Mayle is an acute observer and admiring chronicler. Happily, the sometimes patronizing tone of A Year in Provence is missing here, as Mayle is no longer inclined to depict his neighbors as frugal, tradition-bound peasants. In these pieces, we meet astute modern businessmen. Following in the tradition of A.J. Liebling (who would have argued with Mayle's recipe for bouillabaisse) and M.F.K. Fisher, Mayle writes with deep appreciation of French food and wine; indeed, most of his essays manage to include at least one lunch or dinner, and cafés and markets figure prominently. One exception to this generally droll collection is his angry piece in response to a critical article on Provence by New York Times restaurant reviewer Ruth Reichl. Mayle takes umbrage at what he considers an unjustified and ill-informed attack on his beloved Provence, scolds her for failing to do her homework, and counters with an extensive list of where to find the bestof the region. Mayle's continuing love affair with Provence takes him back to familiar themes but continues to yield fresh insights. . .
Read an Excerpt
From Chapter One
I think it was the sight of a man power-washing his underpants that really brought home the differences, cultural and otherwise, between the old world and the new.
It was a cold, still morning in early winter, and the pulsing thumpthump, thumpthump of a high-pressure hose echoed through the village. Getting closer to the sound, it was possible to see, over a garden wall, a laundry line totally devoted to gentlemen's underwear in a stimulating assortment of colors. The garments were under attack, jerking and flapping under the force of the water jet like hanging targets in a shooting gallery. Standing some distance away, out of ricochet range, was the aggressor, in cap and muffler and ankle-high zippered carpet slippers. He had adopted the classic stance of a soldier in combat, feet spread apart, shooting from the hip, a merciless hail of droplets raking back and forth. The underpants didn't stand a chance.
Only a few days before, my wife and I and the dogs had arrived back in Provence after an absence of four years. Much of that time had been spent in America, where we were able to slip back into the comfortable familiarity of a language that was relatively free--although not entirely--from the problems of being socially appropriate or sexually accurate. No longer did we have to ponder the niceties of addressing people as vous or tu, or to rush to the dictionary to check on the gender of everything from a peach to an aspirin. English was spoken, even if our ears were rusty and some of the fashionable linguistic flourishes took a littlegetting used to.
A friend of below-average height told us he was not considered short any more but "vertically challenged"; the hour, previously a plain old sixty minutes, had sprouted a "top" and a "bottom"; you were not seen leaving a room, but "exiting" it; the economy was regularly being "impacted," as though it were a rogue wisdom tooth; great minds "intuited" where once they had merely guessed; "hopefully," an agreeable word that never harmed a soul, was persistently abused. Important people didn't change their opinions, but underwent a significant "tactical recalibration."
There were many and hideous outbreaks of legalese in everyday speech, reflecting the rise of litigation as a national spectator sport. "Surplusage" was one of a hundred of these horrors. I noticed also that sophisticated and influential Americans--those whose comments are sought by the media--were not content to finish anything but preferred to "reach closure," and I have a nasty feeling that it won't be long before this affectation is picked up by waiters in pretentious restaurants. I can hear it already: "Have you reached closure on your salad?" (This, of course, would only be after you had spent some time bending your "learning curve" around the menu.)
We met, for the first time, the "outster," although we never saw a trace of his more fortunate relative, the inster. We were taught to give up our hopelessly old-fashioned habit of concentrating and instead try "focusing." Every day seemed to bring new and exciting vocabulary options. But these minor curiosities didn't alter the fact that we were surrounded by at least some version of the mother tongue and therefore should have felt quite at home.
Somehow we didn't, although it certainly wasn't for lack of a welcome. Almost everyone we met lived up to the American reputation for friendliness and generosity. We had settled in a house outside East Hampton, on the far end of Long Island, a part of the world that, for nine months a year, is quiet and extremely beautiful.
We wallowed in the convenience of America, in the efficiency and the extraordinary variety of choice, and we practiced native customs. We came to know California wines. We shopped by phone. We drove sedately. We took vitamins and occasionally remembered to worry about cholesterol. We tried to watch television. I gave up taking cigars to restaurants, but smoked them furtively in private. There was even a period when we drank eight glasses of water a day. In other words, we did our best to adapt.
And yet there was something missing. Or rather, an entire spectrum of sights and sounds and smells and sensations that we had taken for granted in Provence, from the smell of thyme in the fields to the swirl and jostle of Sunday-morning markets. Very few weeks went by without a twinge of what I can best describe as homesickness.
Returning to a place where you have been happy is generally regarded as a mistake. Memory is a notoriously biased and sentimental editor, selecting what it wants to keep and invariably making a few cosmetic changes to past events. With rose-colored hindsight, the good times become magical; the bad times fade and eventually disappear, leaving only a seductive blur of sunlit days and the laughter of friends. Was it really like that? Would it be like that again?
There was, of course, only one way to find out.
From the Hardcover edition.