A Place in the World by Frances Mayes


Review by Linda Lappin

In her new memoir,  A Place in the World: Finding the Meaning of Home,  Frances Mayes, now in her eighties, looks back on the houses, homes, and places that have shaped her identity. 

Like her first blockbuster, Under the Tuscan Sun,  A Place in the World is a collection of essays mixing lyricism with recipes; meditations on time with gardening tips; nature writing with historical research; informed discussions of building techniques with a dream journal.

 In this eclectic assemblage of fragments, we see mirrored Mayes’ complex personality: poet, pilgrim, traveler, homemaker, hostess, dreamer of houses. In all her books, one symbol dominates: the house as icon of the self and symbol of the mother.  One theme bridles the lush streams of imagery, anecdotes, objects, and reflections flowing through her prose: “Place is Fate” – a  gritty piece of wisdom with a peculiarly southern flavor to it.

In Under the Tuscan SunAt Home In Italy,  the restoring of the abandoned villa Bramasole corresponded to her own inner reconstruction, the transformation and renewal of her interior life alongside her new partner Ed.  A Place in the WorldFinding the Meaning of Home, written while Mayes was locked down in Italy during the Covid pandemic, revisits the journeys which brought her to where she is now, and points the way to the future. The worldwide lockdown allowed many people to reassess their real needs and desires, she observes, also in terms of their homes as vital living spaces. As a result, the housing market exploded. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to move somewhere else – and, perhaps, to be someone else.

Throughout her work, Mayes frequently returns to this foundational concept: by choosing where you live, you create your destiny. Moreover, for Mayes, the crafting of destiny is intricately bound up with the buying and restoring of old houses. “To sell is to walk away from a cluster of memories and to buy is to choose where the future will take place,”  she remarked in Under the Tuscan Sun. A new house allows you “to be extant in another version.” Quite simply, landscapes, places, and houses change you.

As in her previous books, her comparison of the Italian/ Tuscan lifestyle with the one she left behind stateside emphasizes the civility, hospitality, and reasonableness of Italians –especially during the Italian government’s application of stringent anti-Covid measures. She applauds their aesthetic sensibility, their gusto for everyday pleasures, and above all, she envies their knack for feeling at home in time. At the most basic level, to be at home in time means to be in sync with the seasons. “They inhabit time in a way which makes the day long. The cycle of seasons profoundly changes what they eat and what they do,” she perspicaciously noted in Bella Tuscany. It also means living at a pace that does not deplete the soul. In Italy, Mayes “falls into time,” while in California, she operates “against time.”

But to be at home in time also means to be viscerally aware of the cultural, collective, and artistic heritage in which you are immersed, living your own unique, individual life while skimming above the great river of the past which gives us a sense of continuity and belonging. British writer Vernon Lee, similarly obsessed, once claimed she could not live in a place unless it had been “warmed by the lives of others.” 

A recurring symbol in Mayes’ work is the chambered nautilus – with its whorl of sealed-off rooms, spiraling out from the core; each new chamber a new phase of growth, a new self.  Each notch of the spiral charts our progress through time. In A Place in the World, we move from one room to another across the span of decades –childhood reminiscences, exotic travels and the discovery of Italy. We visit her restored farmhouse in North Carolina;  we participate in her recent dilemma: should she make Bramasole her permanent home? In this overlayed mosaic of locales, we may grasp the larger meaning of Mayes’ private pilgrimage. 

All along her goal has been the resurrection of her childhood self and finding a place which could make that happen. A place where she could reexperience raw, physical joy in nature and explore expanding rooms filled with sunshine, books, and secret corners, all steeped in slow time.  Many parallels can be drawn between the agrarian culture of the old south and that of Tuscany, her new home, where Wordsworthian sensations of nature watered her thirsty southern roots. And yet we learn that despite the fond and sometimes quirky family memories she evokes, Mayes’ childhood was not a happy one.

Mayes has the gift of conveying strong sense impressions in a rich prose deeply imbued with pleasure and joy. Her epiphanies are tempered by an easy humor and the breezy, downhome voice she adapts – but subtlety and sophistication are concealed within. Many literary influences sparkle through her work – D.H. Lawrence’s writings on the Etruscans, Lawrence Durrell’s sensuous prose paintings, May Sarton’s intimate introspections, Virginia Woolf’s elegiac moods, Keatsian echoes, Patience Gray’s luscious food writing, Eudora Welty’s sense of place.

Gaston Bachelard, a major source of inspiration for Mayes, describes old houses as nurturing spaces in which to dream, as havens for the creative life.  “An old house is a book to be read,” she writes. “The walls are alive,” not only with the compresence of past lives and memories but with the house’s own, intrinsic spirit. “Sometimes the house writes back,” she quips. A living dialogue takes place between the writer and her environment. As she grows and evolves so does her house. “My house became my icon. As it moved into my psyche, it seemed timeless.”

That sense of connection to a house or a place can arise spontaneously anywhere, anytime – a “metabolic attraction,” a force field pulling you in, the way light draws the sunflower, encouraging it to bloom and ultimately become itself, a perfect mandala. This is perhaps the secret to her mind-boggling success –both as a writer and a “brand” of products designed to bring Tuscany to her readers in myriad ways. We are all yearning to find a place where we may be ourselves again, if only vicariously. The Welsh have a word for it, as Mayes informs us, “hiraeth…meaning the feeling for a home that can’t ever be revisited or never really existed.”

Frances Mayes is a holder of two lives – one who travels, one who stays and restores.  As a child, she coveted a suitcase – that essential prop which defines the traveler – of her own.  The subtitle of her first book “A Home in Italy” rhymes conceptually with the title of her most recent: “A Place in the World: Finding the Meaning of Home “ showing a progression in thought.  Before, home was Italy, now it’s everywhere and anywhere in the world, an interior state of being. “Maybe my home is as small as a suitcase,” she teases in A Place in the World, alluding to  Bachelard again, with this image of a small, intimate, portable, enclosed space as symbol of the self.  Houses remain; we travel on.