Picks and Pans Review: My Love Affair with England: a Traveler's Memoir
Here, folks, is a woman so in love with the land Shakespeare called a "precious stone set in the silver sea" that she even has kind words for its famously mediocre cuisine. Here's a writer so engaging, even readers who know better will accept her culinary apologia.
Toth, author of the charming memoirs Blooming, recording her growing up in Ames, Iowa, and Ivy Days, about her years at Smith College, traces her besotted state to the summer she spent in London (1960) as a visiting college student. The theater listings in The Times were a feast for an Iowa girl raised on touring road shows. The various branches of the Underground, or subway system, took on distinct personalities: "Bakerloo was dull and stodgy, stopping at only a few places I wanted to go. Piccadilly was fast, bustling and chic.... The Northern was stubborn, unpredictable and almost always late...."
For more than 30 years, Toth's passion has raged on through bad times (a troubled first marriage and eventual divorce; the death of a beloved friend) and good (her happy second marriage). No visit to England has ever proved disappointing. Oh, well, the sheepdog trials that sounded so interesting on the BBC weren't quite as enthralling in person, and a seven-month London leaching stint that sounded so promising was, ultimately, cold, wet and wearying. But Toth displays an admirable ability to locate charm in raffishness and find wonder and pleasure in small moments: badger-watching on the moors, following a footpath on Exmoor, meditating in a country church and garden-hopping wherever yews, topiary and tulips present themselves in profusion.
"As I absorbed all these gardens I began to think of England in brilliant Technicolor," Toth writes. "London a gray city? Not with red tulips and golden daffodils. The English dull? Not if they could mix plate-sized blossoms of red, white, pink and purple. Lacking in humor? Not when they could clip and trim box and yew into the shapes of a fox being pursued by hounds." My Love Affair with England should come with a warning label: highly contagious. (Ballantine, $18)