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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.
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 to 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 palette 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 lunch time 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 the essence of Mayle's portrait as it is a necessity for human survival.
Almost as important as the food itself is how it is consumed. Mayle happily evaluates various eating tactics. For instance, the unexpected appetite of an American beauty editor 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 compiles a mini-guidebook categorizing his knowledge of Provençal essentials: wine, markets, cheese ... Ms. 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.
Kristen Zecchi is a consultant and freelance writer living in Boston.