Book 36 of 52: A Place in the World: Finding the Meaning of Home by Frances Mayes

I’m going to break this post down into two parts: how I found A Place in the World: Finding the Meaning of Home by Frances Mayes, and what I thought about it. Let’s start with how I found the book, because that’s a lot more fun than my thoughts on it.

I packed more than a few titles for my road trip, but made one glaring omission: I only packed fiction. By the time I was heading back home from California, I was tired of fake worlds and wanted to read something real. I traveled through a lot of very rural areas where I was lucky to find a gas station, so wasn’t holding my breath for a bookstore, until I got to Bismarck, N.D. The state capital had to have at least one, right?

Bingo! I stopped at Ferguson Books & More, a delightful place in what I assume is Bismarck’s downtown. They do have “and more” but mostly sell new and used books (and have a banner featuring an ad campaign John Duhamel did for his home state). They strike a bargain, too: if you buy a new book, you get a used one free, and mass market paperbacks are only $2.99 each. I bought too many (can you buy too many books?) The young woman working behind the counter had just gone to the Taylor Swift concert in Minneapolis, so we chatted about that as she rang me up. All in all, a pleasant experience in a bookstore I might have never known about otherwise.

Now, onto the less pleasant part. I did not like A Place in the World — at all.

I re-read Under the Tuscan Sun last year, as I prepare for my own Italian adventure. I liked it, as I had on my first read through. I thought A Place in the World would be perfect for someone like myself who has a tendency to wander, and thinks a lot about what “home” means given that I was forced to sell my first home due to the neighbor from [redacted]. I spent a year rambling around the country trying to find a new place to put down roots, and ended up moving two miles from where I’d lived before. This house is now my base from which my adventures are launched, and yes I do have a lot of thoughts!

What Mayes, also a frequently traveler, though about this? I have no idea. Instead of addressing that, A Place in the World is part retelling of Under the Tuscan Sun, mixed with essays about the homes she and her apparently very wealthy friends have bought, renovated, sold, and the food they cooked there.

In Under the Tuscan Sun, she buys the house with funds coming from her divorce, but I didn’t know she was married to a guy who sailed as a hobby, and her divorce gift to herself was to go on a cooking retreat in France. It’s not just money, but MONEY money.

I can’t begrudge a writer for enjoying an (additional) financial windfall for their work, but I kept asking myself who this memoir was for, with passages like “On the wraparound porch, one literary luminary or another might be sipping wine and trying Allan’s perennial shrimp plate” and “Since we sold our mountain house outside Cortona, we’ve missed having a pool. What’s a smoldering Tuscan summer without a way to cool off.” Okay? The mountain house was in addition to the Tuscany house and also their house in North Carolina. And how do Italians feel about part time ex-pats building pools while they try to stay alive during intensifying heat waves? There’s a whole passage about how they were given special permission to go to Italy in 2020 despite COVID rules, to…make olive oil for their olive oil business. Okay? Again, who is she writing to?

It’s also a structural mess. There’s a passage with one sentence running on for four pages. That’s the point where I considered bailing, but I saw it through to the gritty end in case it got better. It did not.

This needed a hard edit, but I suppose some authors feel they’re beyond all that. I’m a weirdo who thinks no one is above editing. But what do I know.

So: good bookstore, disappointing book.

Anyway, I’m home now, but I took this photo in Minnesota, right at golden hour, which looked lovely in his photo even though I was in a hotel parking lot. I do have two more travel-related book posts. So stay tuned!

Nail polish: Sequin Scene by Essie.

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Jen Miller

Jen Miller

Jen A. Miller is a an author and freelance writer. Her memoir, Running a Love Story, was a Philadelphia Inquirer best book of the year. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, SELF, Buzzfeed and the Guardian, among others.

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