In Frances Mayes’ sparkling new collection of essays, she ponders the meaning of home. It’s a subject about which she knows plenty, having made so many homes over her lifetime. In A Place in the World, Mayes’ fans can revisit some familiar places, such as Bramasole, the villa in the Tuscan countryside that she famously renovated in Under the Tuscan Sun, and the humid and fragrant Fitzgerald, Mayes’ Georgia hometown and the subject of her memoir Under Magnolia. Readers will also visit some new locales, namely Chatwood, the North Carolina farmhouse where she and her husband, Ed, live when they’re not in Italy.
Chatwood spoke to Mayes much like Bramasole did: It was instant love. “When the agent turned in at the lane leading to an upright farmhouse with book-end chimneys, a porch along the front, magnolia trees, and a meadow along a river, I was ready to sign the dotted line before I opened the car door,” she writes. “Ed agreed, this was Eden. Inside the house smelled like closed-up chapels I’ve come across in the Italian countryside. The kitchen fireplace had a swinging arm for hanging a pot over the coals. Copper sinks, bookcases everywhere, staircases that twist, many-paned windows splashed with green views—we are home. That fast.”
There are many such lovely descriptions of Mayes’ houses in A Place in the World, but this is not a book about buildings. It’s about the concept of home, that intangible thing to which countless magazines and blogs are dedicated. Mayes examines home from many angles. She devotes gorgeous chapters to the Chatwood garden, filled with tea-scented camellias, jasmine, honeysuckle and magnolia, not to mention an enormous veggie garden she put in at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. She also writes mouthwateringly about cucina povera, or the poor kitchen—the simple rustic Italian fare eaten during times of war—and how skills such as foraging, using every ounce of the pig and eating seasonally are learned at home. She even recalls temporary homes, rentals in Mexico and Capri that nourished her creativity.
My favorite essay might be “Home Thoughts: A Litany.” Here, in almost stream-of-consciousness prose, Mayes recalls the homes of her dear friends. “What an intimate act, to invite someone into your home,” she writes. And it’s true! She remembers in striking detail the sculptures, books, kitchens and fireplaces of her friends’ homes around the world. It’s a whirlwind home tour and homage to friendship in 10 pages.
Tempered by a dash of wistful examination as Mayes enters her 80s, A Place in the World is a beautiful, thought-provoking read.