Sunday, May 25, 2008

Review: Encore Provence: New Adventures in the South of France

Encore Provence: New Adventures in the South of France by Peter Mayle. New York: Random House, Inc., 2000. 240 pages.

For an unexplained reason, Peter Mayle and his unnamed wife (presumably the "Jennie" of the dedication) left paradise in Provence for Long Island. In Encore Provence, he returns to the south of France, where the food, wine, and slow pace of life again absorb his attention.

Even less structured than Toujours Provence, Encore Provence covers familiar territory from new angles. "The Unsolved Murder of the Handsome Butcher" and "Recipe for a Village" address both the insularity and charms of village life ("Recipe" much less successfully), while "How to Be a Nose," "Discovering Oil," and "Friday Morning in Carpentras" provide insights into the perfume, olive oil, and truffle industries, respectively. In one of the best chapters, "Restaurant Critic Makes Astonishing Discovery," Mayle effectively and humorously discredits Ruth Reichl's flippant dismissal of Provence. How could a serious critic, after only a month's visit, write, "I had been dreaming of a Provence that never existed"? To help the reader find ripe tomatoes—which Reichl could not manage to do—and other products of Provence, Mayle provides the names and places for markets, vineyards, restaurants, bakeries, and producers of goods like olive oil and honey. It becomes clear that Reichl could not find Provence because she actively avoided it; perhaps she thought that deflating the expectations that Mayle helped to create was a better story than simply reinforcing them.

Several chapters, like "Curious Reasons for Liking Provence" and "Eight Ways to Spend a Summer's Afternoon," reveal one of the problems with Encore Provence—the lack of significant new material. More filler than substance, they are more like random personal essays than integral parts of a cohesive work, as though Mayle could not think of a better way to frame his random observations. These chapters are forced, splintered, and almost unnecessary.

Surprisingly, there is less of a sense of place. In the previous Provence books, Mayle's stone house, with its location abutting public forest, its isolation from traffic, its drawn-out renovations, its pool that attracts thirsty sangliers, and its quirky neighbors like Faustin and Massot, gives the reader a strong sense of a place with personality. The house is at the heart of A Year in Provence. In Encore Provence, it is not clear that Mayle and his wife return to the same house or what their neighbors are like. Even the dogs are mostly absent. Without structure and intimacy, Encore Provence is nothing more than a series of disconnected travelogue stories. Perhaps weary of intrusions into his privacy, or perhaps unclear about the reasons for the first book's success, Mayle distances himself from his reader.

There may not be much left for Mayle to say about Provence. He writes that, due to building restrictions, not much has changed. Yet he notes that "the garage and the geese are gone, and the farmhouse has sprouted wings and annexes . . . the vines have been groomed" and "the refugees' urge for rapid [gardening] results has spawned an industry: instant gardens, shipped in and set up with astonishing speed." These are only a couple of small changes, to be sure, but in time there will be more, and Provence will alter slowly and subtly. Mayle should know that that is the nature of change in the countryside and that, with enough demand, pressure, and money, change can accelerate, transforming a village into a resort town or farmland into suburbia.

Even if you cannot visit Provence, much of the lifestyle that Mayle describes—with food and drink of varying type and quality—is still available in many places outside France. The slow pace, the fatalistic viewpoint, the elderly gossips and moralists, the close-knit relationships, the helpfulness, and the beauty and quirks of the countryside are found in many regions. If you are as observant and open as Mayle, you may be able to find your version of Provence closer to home.

Sunday, 25 May 2008.
© 2008 by Diane L. Schirf.

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