I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book more charming than Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence.” It reads sort of like a modern fairy tale, like a dream you think about during slow days at work without any real hope that it’ll come true. But that’s the beauty of it — “A Year in Provence” is 100 percent true, a sort of combination travelogue/memoir that chronicles, fittingly enough, Mayle and his wife’s first year in the south of France after a life spent in England.
After years of dreaming of French sunshine during gray English winters and damp English summers, Mayle and his wife packed up their life and their two dogs and moved into a big, stone, idyllic farmhouse in the heart of the Provencal countryside. With the Provencal countryside comes the Provencal life: the food, the characters, the slow passage of time. And Mayle manages to distill the heart of this life into one slim volume.
Reading “A Year in Provence” is like taking a trip yourself. Mayle has the rare gift of completely transporting his readers. It’s not the big things that matter, here. The secret to this transportation lies in Mayle’s eye for detail, for spotting the littlest quirk or spying the humor and managing to convey it perfectly. He preserves a situation exactly so that readers can enjoy it, too.
Thus we discover the crazy next-door neighbor, who promises them a fox; we take trips to the market and get distracted for hours, too busy watching a game of boules or distracted by an unexpected goat race. We linger hours over a six-course New Year’s lunch with pink champagne and watch true gourmands savor a meal. We learn, just as Mayle did, that time functions differently in Provence. House renovations take much longer than expected. As if the Provencal accent wasn’t difficult enough, the workers disappear for days at a time; work gets done, but not on any real schedule. But it’s all completed before the storms come: Provence runs with the seasons. And none of it results in any real frustration: The Provencal people are so good-natured and friendly — if a bit hard to understand — that it’s impossible to be actually angry.
“A Year in Provence” is anecdotal, which adds to the sense that it’s a story told by a good friend. It’s fun to read aloud, to recount your favorite meal or hilarious neighbor encounter. Take it on vacation, to the beach — it’s a relaxing read that you can pick up wherever, so no need to remember your page number. Essentially, Mayle recounts his acclimation to the Provencal life, to the slow pace and good-natured way of the life he and his wife chose for themselves.
And by the end of “A Year in Provence,” it’s hard not to feel a part of the Provencal life yourself. It can be a bit of a shock to return to the speed of the real world, but having to come back is better than never having been at all.