Picks and Pans Review: A Year in Provence

updated 10/15/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/15/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Peter Mayle

Early on, Mayle lets slip information that will cost him. First, he reveals that he owns a swimming pool; next, he announces that he just renovated his farmhouse's kitchen. Then—big blunder here—he admits that he and his wife are often too polite to evict houseguests who overstay their welcome. So if next year Mayle ends up playing host to importunate strangers (i.e., readers of this terrific book) it will be his own fault.

Mayle, a free-lance writer, has made himself sound like a patsy, and he has made the Provencal region of southern France sound like paradise. The couple fell in love with the area while on vacation and did what many dream of: They bought a chunk of it. This book is a month-by-month account of 1987, their first year in Provence.

They learn—slowly—to understand a language that hardly resembles textbook French, "a rich soupy patois, emanating from somewhere at the back of the throat and passing through a scrambling process in the nasal passages." They learn to cope with the winter Mistral, an icy-fingers-down-your-spine wind. They learn to hunt for truffles and cope with vipers. ("Take a woman with you. They can't run as fast as men, and the viper will catch them first.")

They confront the French love affair with bureaucracy and learn to understand the peculiar French idea of time. "When a Proven-gal looks you in the eye and tells you that he will be hammering on your door ready to start work next Tuesday for certain, the behavior of his hands is all-important," notes Mayle. "If they are still, or patting you reassuringly on the arm, you can expect him on Tuesday. If one hand is held out at waist height, palm downwards, and begins to rock from side to side, adjust the timetable to Wednesday or Thursday. If the rocking develops into an agitated waggle, he's really talking about next week or God knows when." Mayle makes clear that the local characters are as flavored as the cuisine. There is Massot, for instance, who eats foxes and will gladly give you his recipe, or Monsieur Menicucci the clarinet-playing plumber. A year in Provence, it turns out, is not nearly long enough. (Knopf, $ 19.95)

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