Review: Under Magnolia by Frances Mayes

Review by Angela L. Eckhart

under-the-magnolia-cover photos inside flowers“One reason I felt immediately at home in Tuscany was that certain strong currents of life reminded me of the South.”

Author Frances Mayes, who shares her time between Italy and North Carolina, is on a book tour in Mississippi when she feels the sudden pull back towards her southern roots. She left her hometown at 22, and she admits bouts of anxiety would envelop her whenever she had to return. But years later, after beginning her young adult life in San Francisco, and then fleeing to Italy, she feels a tug of nostalgia while she is visiting Oxford. Ironically, the push to leave the South so long ago “was as powerful as the magnet that pulled me [back].”

Mayes, whose best-selling memoir Under the Tuscan Sun was made into a film starring Diane Lane, feels a need to recall her youth in Fitzgerald, Georgia. And those recollections are captured in her follow-up coming-of-age memoir Under Magnolia (Crown; April 2014).

Mayes’ details are vivid and may evoke the reader’s own childhood memories. For instance, she envisions her grandmother through her mind’s eye, from the smell of the Fleur de Rocaille perfume to the rice pudding to “The coils of her shimmering silver hair sprung close to her pink scalp.” The chapters, such as “Islands in Summer” and “The Walking Rain” are thematic and involve several scenes relating to that chapter. Mayes’ sense of place is described with the “dog days” of summer, the homemade food, and the way the locals interacted and behaved.

There are instances where some of her memories seem scattered and out of place, almost as if she just wanted to insert specific details and memories that were engrained in her mind–just for memory’s sake. She references Faulkner, when he wrote that “there is no such thing as memory: the brain recalls just what the muscles grope for.” And she questions why some memories are so vivid and others fade away.

Mayes grew up with books and immersed herself in great literature–sometimes up to seven hours a day–choosing to escape what she originally viewed as her mundane life in the South. And it is apparent that she is, indeed, very well-read, because she is a prolific, ornate writer. In many places, her prose dances across the page like poetry.

This memoir will appeal to anyone who felt (or acted upon) the strong urge to leave home, but one day returned for the need to remember one’s roots. The theme of building rooms of childhood memories into what made up a home resonates to anyone who does not want to forget how a place can be so influential.

Under Magnolia provides a clear and colorful picture of what it was like for Mayes while growing up in the South.

RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

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