Women in Sunlight, by Frances Mayes (2018)

Women in Sunlight, by Frances MayesFrances Mayes is the author of Under the Tuscan Sun, a nonfiction memoir of her move to an Italian villa brought to the big screen featuring Diane Lane and the inimitable Canadian Sandra Oh. It was a huge seller, capitalizing on the North American longing for days of wine, good food and roses, sunlight and Italian lovers. I bet the pull of Italia, la dolce vita, is stronger today than ever. This is a fictional take on the story, featuring three American women, from “the South,” who decide to leap before looking (check out the cover again) and surprise everyone they know by renting an Italian villa, sight unseen, for a year. The three met at an open house for a retirement village, a move none of them wants to make despite its being the most rational step at their age. Each of the three women is haunted, in a different way. At 69, Camille is the eldest; she is still reeling from the unexpected and sudden death of her beloved husband Charles just a year ago. Susan’s husband Aaron lost his memory before dying, and she is struggling to remember him as the handsome sexy hunk with whom she built a thriving real estate business. And Julia, at 59 the youngest of the three, is numb as she hides from the deeply painful reality of a drug-addicted daughter and now a cheating husband. Strangers at first, the three strike up a friendship that immediately sparkles, creating a bond that makes the idea of a year in Italy seem crazy, sure, but still appealing. So off they go, to the dismay of family who think the retirement home is the right move, the safe move. The villa, it turns out, is next-door to another American ex-pat, the well-known poet and author Kit Raine. Camille, Susan and Julia spend the year as the rest of us only dream of – shopping in local markets for fresh seafood and produce, participating in the olive harvest, joining locals at the sagre (festivals), restoring the gardens and limonaia (a glass house for citrus trees), learning to cook and speak Italian, and of course, finding love. It’s Italy, after all, though most of the men in this story aren’t actually Italian. Who wouldn’t love this alternative to a retirement “unit”? Also there is Kit’s own story, including her struggles with writing the biography of her good friend Margaret Merrill, another ghost, haunting Kit to finish the work, though we never fully understand why it’s such a struggle. The book is told in alternating voices – Kit narrates her view in first person, and each of the three newcomers’ stories unfolds in third person, the omniscient narrator, but because the women’s stories are recorded by Kit, she really is the narrator, writing about being a writer. A bit meta, it may seem confusing, but the device does help to sort out whose story is on the page. Having said that, I must admit to muddling all the men – Charles, Charlie, Chris, Colin, Aaron and Rowan, and who the heck is Wade again? I also wish for more from the Italians; our protagonists are busily immersing themselves in San Rocco but the book never really delves into the locals as characters. Still, there is no doubt they are in Italy – Mayes has liberally sprinkled – nay, strewn – Italian words and phrases throughout the narrative. I’m glad I was reading this on an electronic device and could quickly look up words in both English and Italian; Mayes does tug and push her reader into a bigger vocabulary! Who knew that a favonian wind is a favourable one, usually from the west? Taking time to look up a word or phrase allows the reader to linger over this book, savouring the changing seasons, the tasty dishes, and the pleasures of friendship, loved ones, and beautiful things, firmly rooted in a solid though ancient home, where lives have been lived just so for centuries. “There’s not a word in English or Italian for those in our lives who are between friends and family.” My thanks to Crown Publishing for the advance reading copy provided through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.
More discussion and reviews of this novel: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35742912


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