Returning to Provence in Books

9781400068173_p0_v1_s260x420Revisiting Provence through Susan Vreeland’s Lisette’s List has me hungry for the sweet melons and salty olives, yearning for the light captured by Cezanne, Pissarro, and Van Gogh, and missing the Mistral wind.   Vreeland’s descriptions are so accurate, she must have been there.  Like her other novels based on history and art – Luncheon of the Boating Party and Girl in Hyacinth Blue – Vreeland weaves fact with fiction.

GetAttachment-4.aspxThe tale is set in the town of Roussillon, where I recently visited the ochre hills, source of the famous pigment used in paintings. Cezanne, beloved son of Provence, whose paintings were inspired by Montagne Sainte-Victoire, the mountain overlooking Aix- en-Provence, is alive in the story, making my recent visit to his studio, seeing his paint- stained smock and replicas of his famous apples, take on GetAttachment-3.aspxmore meaning.   In Vreeland’s narrative, Pascal, the old grandfather and frame maker, recalls his friendship with the painter, who traded the paintings now hanging in Pascal’s old house, for frames.

The war intrudes on the idyll, as Vreeland uses the paintings hidden from the Nazis as the vehicle for the story’s dramatic arc as well as more travel through the French countryside. Chagall enters the narrative as the war takes its toll on the small towns in Provence, his hiding place from the Nazis, before he escapes with his wife to America.

Lisette’s list begins as she is trying to adjust to married life and the move from Paris to the country, but grows into a set of vows marking her independence and her determination to find the paintings and restore both the art and her life.  You may enjoy Lisette’s awakening to art through Vreeland’s romantic historical fiction, but her story was too slow and contrived for me.  The vivid descriptions of life in Provence were more satisfying than the long hunt for the missing paintings – maybe because I have just been there.

Although the book was recommended reading before I travelled, I had forgotten about it until a friend recently reminded me of Lisette. The book brought back the quiet beauty and simplicity of the provincial life, and reminded me of my own wonderful journey.

And, now I look forward to more memories of Provence, as I read Iris Murdoch’s Nuns and Soldiers, recommended by another friend who understands my yearning for more reminders of Southern France. Have you read it?

Related Review:   Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland


Peter Mayle – Food and Mystery

9780307962874_p0_v1_s260x420Having first met Peter Mayle’s detective Sam Levitt in The Vintage Caper, I was caught by Emily Brennan’s interview featuring Mayle’s newest crime mystery – The Corsican Caper – in the New York Times travel section.  Reminiscing about his “Year in Provence,” Mayle offers a glimpse into Marseilles,  the scene of Levitt’s latest escapades:

“he {Levitt} outsmarts a rapacious Russian oligarch who plans to seize his friend’s chateau…”

Mayle’s mysteries are more about the food and the wine than the action, and Mayle’s interview affirms he is more interested in the drama of his surroundings – using the story as a vehicle to introduce readers to his favorite dishes.  No wonder the article appears in the travel section, not the book review.  Nevertheless, I’ve downloaded the book for my next long flight – probably not to Marseilles, but I agree with Mayle’s statement:

“I only wish I had 50 million euros to have a go at it.”

Read my review of The Vintage Caper here


Travels With …

Books can vicariously take you many places, but the Smithsonian has a list of  books to inspire real travel – The Top Ten Most Influential Travel Books.   From Homer’s Odyssey to Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, the list also includes Peter Mayle (Provence).

One of my favorite travel writers is Paul Theroux; I discovered him as I was flying across the ocean to a new life in Hawaii; his fictional Hotel Honolulu proved to be an irreverent perspective that was easy to adopt.  Since then, I’ve discovered his nonfiction – The Tao of Travel.

More recently I’ve turned to Rick Steves as my nonfiction source for all travel to Europe, but for a humorous outlook on travel, I always return to Calvin Trillin’s Travels with Alice.9780374526009_p0_v1_s260x420

“So far, no scholar of Franco-American relations has attempted to refute the theory I once offered that some of the problems American visitors have with the French can be traced to the Hollywood movies of Maurice Chevalier.  According to the theory, meeting a surly bureaucrat or a rude taxi driver is bound to be particularly disappointing if you’ve arrived with the expectation that every Frenchman you encounter will be a charming, debonair old gent who at any moment might start singing, ‘Sank Evan for leetle gerls.’”

Do you have a favorite travel book?