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From Barnes & NobleKinta Beevor's memoir A Tuscan Childhood is like a leisurely, enchanted stroll through the sensory landscape of her early years in Italy. Though this world has long since disappeared, Beevor clearly recalls the simple pleasures of her Italian childhood with a mature memory and exquisite prose. She has the eloquent voice of a grown-up and the awestruck eye of a child.
Born in Britain in 1911 to painter Aubrey Waterfield and journalist Lina Duff Gordon, Beevor spends her childhood moving between two Tuscan homes that are unique in character but occupy the same intriguing world. Her first home, at Aulla, is a 15th-century castle purchased by her parents in a run-down state and transformed into a dreamer's wonderland. The garden on the roof is home to an avenue of trees, a marble fish pond, and a colorful melange of flowers: "the mingled scent...was enough to make one's head swim." The severity of the castle walls are softened by her father's murals of the surrounding landscape and villages. Each of the castle's magical elements creates a world more akin to the wonders of a fairytale than the certainties of home.
Beevor's second retreat is Poggio Gherardo, her austere Aunt Janet's homestead. In contrast to the rustic life at Aulla, the apricot walls of Poggio house a more formal lifestyle. But this sense of protocol borrows more from the way of life of the contadini, the Tuscan peasants, than that of the English aristocracy. The Italian agricultural calendar dictates the schedule here, and laborious harvest days close with the ultimate reward: a sumptuous feast to partake of the crop. Maize and basil, chestnuts and olives -- they wield the power to sway the population by their seasonal rhythms.
Those laboring days are essential to the "ancient trinity of bread, olive oil, and wine." They are the cornerstones of Tuscan cuisine as well as the daily gastronomic delights of Aulla and Poggio. With local chefs in residence at both homes, there is no shortage of complicated gourmet dishes like spun-sugar baskets filled with raspberries or antipasti of delicately fried delectables such as zucchini flowers and fennel slices. Equally tantalizing, however, are Beevor's descriptions of the simplicity of fresh-picked figs from the castle gardens or porcini mushrooms from the darkness of nearby woods.
However, the lively portraits of the people inhabiting Aulla and Poggio are what give these homes the vibrant identity of Beevor's memories. Her hours are filled with people from two distinct worlds: the British intellectuals and the Italian peasants. English visitors -- writers, artists, and even royalty -- flow through the story like props that give the set color and character. They occupy themselves with intellectual discourse and provide Beevor with a cache of amusing anecdotes.
Yet Beevor's leading men and women are the practical contadini who form the core of her Tuscan life. These are the characters who lend her story the most depth. The chef's genius is so mesmerizing that the gardener takes "any excuse to linger in the kitchen to watch the maestro." Such surprises abound in Beevor's memory. The stonemason offers lessons on the intricacies of mushroom-gathering. A slender fourteen-year-old messenger arrives in Aulla and departs over a half-century later as the reliable backbone of the household. Such are the Italian figures who occupy Beevor's life: arriving in the most unremarkable fashion, they leave the most remarkable contributions of sensible custom and compassionate soul.
The lone dark moments of Beevor's writing, appropriately, come during the narration of World War II. The war's destruction of the Tuscan equilibrium relegates the peaceful land of her childhood to the archives of memory. Perhaps it is this devastation that leads to her treatment of the war as more of a history lesson than a personal atrocity.
Italophiles and fans of authors Frances Mayes and Tim Parks will find the same fascination with the idiosyncrasies that make Italy a pleasure of warmth and difference. However, Beevor's is a Tuscany long gone, one that most readers will never have the pleasure of experiencing firsthand.
Though Beevor's A Tuscan Childhood is indeed a memoir, it does not belong to the '90s variety of psychoanalysis or confessional. While certain childhood events (neglectful parents, death, and the destruction of war, for example) could have easily prompted a psychological examination, Beevor reveals a past that is curiously untainted by personal revelation or emotion. Instead, she engages the reader in a glorious sensory journey through the idyllic Tuscany that was the playground of her childhood.