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Under Magnolia | Under the Tuscan Sun | Bella Tuscay | Every Day in Tuscany | Swan | A Year in the World

Under Magnolia
Reading Group Guide

The beloved, bestselling “Bard of Tuscany” (New York Times), Frances Mayes now turns her writer’s eye to Fitzgerald, Georgia, the colorful southern town that defined her early years and shaped her understanding of home and family.

In her signature voice, Mayes introduces us to the people and places of her bittersweet past. From her years as a spirited, secretive child through her university studies—a period of exquisite freedom that set in motion her literary life and her passion for travel—Under Magnolia explores the intense relationships of Mayes’s upbringing, with her beautiful yet fragile mother, Frankye; her volatile father, Garbert; her grandfather Daddy Jack, whose life Garbert saved; her grandmother Mother Mayes; and the family maid, Frances’s confidante Willie Bell. By turns searingly honest and humorous, Under Magnolia is an ode to enduring legacies.

A lyrical and evocative memoir, Under Magnolia will captivate your reading group. We hope this guide will enrich your discussion.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Frances Mayes begins Under Magnolia by recalling a chance weekend in Oxford, Mississippi, where she stood “on the X, not knowing it’s time to leap, when, really, I’d only meant to pause.” When have you experienced a similar crossroad? What did it take to make you leap?

2. As Mayes describes surreptitiously touring William Faulkner’s house, what truths emerge about the humanity of great writers? Why has the South produced so much enduring literature?

3. How did Willie Bell help Mayes master the art of endurance? What prevented Mayes’s mother, Frankye, from being more self-sufficient? What did both women teach Mayes about her role in the world?

4. As Mayes describes attending college both at Randolph-Macon and the University of Florida, before the easy availability of the Pill, what can we discover about the impact of the 1960s on young women in America? How does Mayes’s college experience compare to yours?

5. Mayes describes her young self as a free spirit with an independent mind, transfixed by literature and disinterested in other subjects in school. How did these attributes feed her highly successful career, first as a professor and then as a bestselling author? What does her story tell us about the keys to success and fulfillment?

6. From reading this background story, what future would you have predicted for this child?

7. What does Under Magnolia tell us about Mayes’ early perceptions of home? What spurred her to move to California? What called her home to the South so many years later?

8. Discuss the freedoms and restrictions Mayes experienced throughout her youth. How did her family manage resources, particularly Daddy Jack’s assistance? How did Mayes define “fortunate”?

9. How did the presence and absence of Mayes’s father influence her life? How did she heal the scars of his anger, and the trauma of his early death?

10. Discuss the similarities Mayes observes between Tuscany and the South, both her native Georgia and her current homeland of North Carolina. What draws her to these locales? Is the sense of community so strong in these places because of history and landscape, or are there other factors?

11. How has Mayes’s experience of love and relationships evolved since she was a young woman? How did her experiences with Paul and Frank shape her sense of self? How did her parents’ marriage affect her expectations for happiness in a relationship?.

12. What did you discover about Mayes’s literary approach as you read her descriptions of her earliest memories? If you’ve read other works by Frances Mayes, how does Under Magnolia enrich your experience of them, including her fiction and poetry?

13. What are the defining traits of the town where you were raised, especially the food and the customs as well as architecture, history, or even special words or phrases? Would you like to return to your birthplace?

14. Southern writers are especially strong on conveying a sense of place. In Under Magnolia, how is Mayes shaped by the landscape?

Guide written by Amy Clements.

Under the Tuscan Sun
Reading Group Guide

1. "What are you growing here?" is the first line of Under the Tuscan Sun. In what ways does that question symbolize how the book came about? What does it say about Frances Mayes’s life in Italy, and about her life in general?

2. Mayes writes of the traumatic experience of selling one house and purchasing another on various occasions in the United States. Why is the purchase of her house in Italy so qualitatively different from her other experiences with home ownership?

3. "The house is a metaphor for the self," Frances Mayes writes. Discuss some examples of this, both in her life and in your own.

4. What makes Mayes’s writing style effective? How does her particular voice make her descriptions come alive? What images did you find to be particularly striking?

5. What are some of the qualities of Italian life that contrast most sharply with American culture? Which aspects of Italian life did Frances and Ed find it important to incorporate into their own lives? Which aspects would you have been drawn to?

6. How does the experience of purchasing and renovating Bramasole impact Frances and Ed’s relationship, and how does their interaction affect their shared experience of buying, owning, and living in Bramasole?

7. How does the author change as the book progresses? How are her changes reflected in her tone and in her writing?

8. Mayes’s house is called "Bramasole," which literally means "yearning for the sun." However, soon after she purchases the house, Mayes dreams that its real name is "Centi Angeli," or "one hundred angels." Discuss the ways in which this proves to be a premonitory dream. What are some of the other discoveries made throughout Bramasole and its grounds that lend a magical feeling to the house?

9. What role does food play, both metaphorically and literally, in the sense of delight that deepens Mayes’s relationship to Tuscany and the house itself?

10. Mayes often portrays life in Cortona as timeless. How does she also convey that the timelessness is in many ways just an illusion? How does the "sense of endless time" affect her household?

11. What is Mayes’s philosophy about the friend who speaks disparagingly of contemporary Italy and says it’s "getting to be just like everywhere else–homogenized and Americanized" (p. 110)? How does Mayes’s response address globalization in general?

12. Mayes’s loving descriptions of food, her recipes, and her gardening tips add sensuality to the book, but what are some of their other functions in Under the Tuscan Sun?

13. What is Mayes’s advice to readers who have "the desire to surprise your own life" (p. 191)? How would you respond to this impulse? What are some of the benefits and drawbacks to the time of life Mayes chose for embarking on a major change? Discuss some of your own turning points and "forks in the road."

14. Although Under the Tuscan Sun isn’t a novel, would you say that in many ways it reads like one? If so, what is the spring, the inner tension, that propels the book forward and shapes its form?

15. Besides presenting us with wonderful descriptions of food, scenery, and people, what is the other major impetus of Under the Tuscan Sun?

16. As the book draws to a close, Mayes asks rhetorically, "Doesn’t everything reduce in the end to a poetic image–one that encapsulates an entire experience in one stroke?" (p. 256). In your opinion, which image or scene best "encapsulates the entire experience" of Mayes’s time in Italy?

Bella Tuscany
Reading Group Guide

1. Mayes writes, "It can be dangerous to travel. A strong reflecting light is cast back on ‘real life,’ sometimes a disquieting experience." What does she mean? How does travel change your perception of yourself? Has a hidden piece of your identity ever been revealed to you through travel?

2. While in Sicily, Mayes connects existential thoughts of death with traveling. "Why am I here where I don’t belong? What is this alient place? I fell I’m in a strange afterlife, a haint blowing with the winds. I suspect the subtext to this displacement is the dread of death. Who and where are you when you are no one?" Do these thoughts of displacement enter your mind when you travel? Do you think they are connected to a fear of death?

3. How is Mayes’s trip to Sicily different from her travels in Tuscany and the Veneto? What are specific traits of the Sicilian character? What in Sicily’s history can account for these traits? Are there regional differences in your own country that are as vivid?

4. At one of the many extravagant feasts he attends throughout the book, Ed remarks, speaking of the bitter after-dinner drinks called amari, "Italians seem to have acquired more tastes than many of us." Do you agree? Why might that be the case? How is Italy’s relationship to food different from that of other countries?

5. On a number of occasions, Mayes describes the many elaborate gestures Italians have for expressing how good food is. Do any of them make sense to you? How many gestures do you have to show your enjoyment of food? How often do you use these gestures? What does it mean to frequently express your appreciation of food through physical gestures? What does that say about a culture?

6. Why do you think Mayes includes recipes in her book? What is the effect of the recipes on you, the reader? Does it bring her story more alive? If so, how? Do you intend to make any of the dishes? Which ones? Is your interest in these specific dishes connected to Mayes’s narrative?

7. Throughout her travels in Italy, Mayes frequently encounters ancient Roman and Etruscan monuments. How does the historical scope of Italy change her perception of time? Does it change yours just by reading about the ancient landscape? How do you think growing up, surrounded by so much ancient history, would change a person? Do you see those differences in the Italians that Mayes encounters? How do these Italians feel about their heritage?

8. Mayes writes of the balance between "ambition, solitude, stimulation, adventure…What is replenishing? What is depleting? What takes? What gives? What wrings you out and, truly, what rinses you with happiness?" Do you think restoring Bramasole in the summers and teaching the rest of the year in San Francisco is a good balance? What balance have you struck? Are you content with it?

9. What is the relationship of the foraging woman, who used to work at Bramasole, to the estate now? Is she trespassing when she picks their fruits and mushrooms? How is the sense of land ownership profoundly different in Tuscany than in Mayes’s native California?

10. Mayes writes, "The garden, I begin to see, is a place where I can give memory a location and season in which to remain alive…Scents operate like music and poetry, stirring up wordless feelings that rush through the body, not as cognitive thoughts but as a surge of lymphatic tide." What do your plants or garden mean to you? Is your garden a repository of memories of places, events, or loved ones? Do you use scents to remember?

Quoting a haiku from Basho, Mayes writes, "Deep Autumn,My neighbor, how Does he live, I wonder?" Why do you think Mayes travels? Why do you? Does your urge to travel change as you get older? What inspires you to leave your home and wander?

12. What is the relationship Italians have with art? How does Mayes attempt to emulate that relationship? What role does art play in your day-to-day life? How do you access art in your everyday existence?

13. How is Mayes’s rose garden in conflict with Anselmo’s olive trees? Why do you think the olive trees are so important to Anselmo? Is there a larger issue at stake here?

14. Mayes writes that, "Multilingual friends assure me that a new personality emerges when one acquires a new language." Have you experienced that, or seen it in others? Do you see a change in Mayes over the course of her year spent on sabbatical in Tuscany?

15. Mayes asks, "What can we take back [from Tuscany] to our lives in the new house [in California]? What accounts for the dramatic shift in our minds and bodies when we live [in Tuscany]?" How do you incorporate life lessons you’ve learned in your travels, or while on vacation? How do you infuse your daily working life with the spirit of Tuscany? What specific, concrete changes in your life did Bella Tuscany inspire?

16. Why do you think Mayes was unable to recognize her ex-husband at the rehearsal dinner fo their daughter’s marriage? Has your world ever been so transformed as to make the past unrecognizable?

17. Bella Tuscany brings the Tuscan countryside so vividly to life. As you journey through Tuscany with Mayes, through a year of changing seasons, what specific images have left an indelible imprint on your mind? Have you been to Tuscany? Do you plan on returning?

18. Bramasole is in perpetual need of repair. Mayes’s restoration work will never end. Would she have been better off buying a more modern villa? What is her attraction to dilapidated buildings? Do you share it? If you restore your own house, does it change your relationship to it? How so?

Every Day in Tuscany
Reading Group Guide

1. Frances Mayes explores the process of “taking” a decision (rather than making one) and being taken by decisions as well. Italy, she writes, took hold of her and shaped her in its image. How has she been transformed by her second home over the past two decades? What impact has she made on the community of Cortona? What decisions have “taken” you in your own life?

2. In the opening pages of Every Day in Tuscany, Frances Mayes describes an unsettling dream she’s had in which she must choose between her house, Bramasole, and her right arm. How does she grapple with her sometimes conflicting feelings about Bramasole? What spurs her to occasionally consider living without it? What makes our relationships to our homes very different from relationships with other material possessions?

3. From cold spring rains to the lavish scent of lemon trees at their peak, Mayes describes a community that is constantly aware of nature. Discuss the seasonal aspects of life in Tuscany. Is your life in tune with the seasons? What can we gain by listening to the natural world?

4. Much has changed on the world stage since Mayes’s early days in Cortona. How do her Italian friends perceive her American identity? What are some of the cultural challenges of her expatriate life?

5. Discuss the many kinds of love that are captured in Every Day in Tuscany: between Ed and Frances; among their friends and family members; of place; and of life itself, in all its everyday joys. What does it take to bring more love into a life?

6. Mayes describes the economic factors she encounters in decisions large and small, and in the lives of those throughout Cortona. How does she measure “costs” (financial and emotional) as she and Ed prepare for the next chapter of their lives? How is security measured and defined in a world that is not driven by materialism?

7. What were your reactions as Frances and Ed discussed major renovations for Bramasole? Would you have simply replaced the roof, or would you have said yes to the extensive changes? To what extent is the imperfect state of Bramasole part of its charm?

8. Hospitality is a key component to life in Cortona. Does your community emphasize hospitality to the same degree? Why do you suppose this is so? Why is it revitalizing for Tuscan families to host many friends?

9. Every Day in Tuscany unfolds as a series of beautiful images and powerful memories. How did Mayes’s voice as a poet shape the format of this book? How does it mirror the way life unfolds?

10. Mayes describes the threats she received after signing a petition against a proposed swimming pool near her property. What does this incident tell us about the encroaching modern world and Cortona’s attempts to remain unspoiled? Compared to Americans, how do Italians handle resistance? What are the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches?

11. Mayes’s memoir includes several recollections of threats and sorrows she and Ed have experienced in the United States and abroad. What does she offer as the best antidote to fear and tragedy? How have she and Ed created “safety” in their lives?

12. Discuss the children who visit Bramasole. What is Mayes’s legacy to them? What aspects of life in Tuscany do you predict will remain unchanged for many generations to come?

13. As you read about Lucas Signorelli’s works, what timeless aspects of his culture came to mind? Would he feel at home in Frances Mayes’s Tuscany, just as she feels at home immersed in his art?

14. What universal truths did Mayes learn from Willie Bell? What aspects of a southern childhood does Mayes carry with her, no matter where she lives? What aspects of your childhood are forever part of your own identity?

15. Renewal and moving forward are primary quests in this book. What tactics and solitary pursuits described here might you adopt?

16. In addition to Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes’s previous nonfiction includes Bella Tuscany and A Year in the World, as well as the illustrated books Bringing Tuscany Home and In Tuscany. Discuss the ones you have read. What are the constants in her life? At the same time, how do her books inspire us to constantly reinvent ourselves?

Reading Group Guide

1. The first two chapters introduce J. J. and Ginger in settings where they seem fulfilled and at peace. What does J. J.’s cabin have in common with the farmhouse Ginger rents in Italy? Is there any similarity between Ginger’s relationship with Marco and J. J.’s experience with Julianne, the teacher from Osceola? How does Julianne measure up to Georgia Larkin?

2. Discuss the narrator’s voice in Swan. What traits do you recognize from Frances Mayes’s non fiction and poetry? How did her accomplished writer’s eye serve her in creating a novel?

3. Compare her depiction of small-town Georgia to that of Tuscany. Are there any similarities between the Mason’s family house and Bramasole?

4. Frances told her editor that Swan is “a book of memory, how it cuts and comes again, and of a powerful landscape, which is always at work shaping the people who live on its surface.” What are some of the ways in which memory and landscape define the inhabitants of Swan? Were Swan’s “old days” good ones?

5. Holt’s relationship with Lucy is considered just as taboo as Catherine’s extramarital affair. As time passes, how is this legacy of racism handled in the town of Swan? In what ways do Tessie and Scott reflect their generations?

6. Frances Mayes is renowned for her description of Tuscany’s cuisine. What are some of the most tempting Southern dishes presented in the novel?

7. From Big Jim to Ginger, the novel portrays a variety of traditional and highly non-traditional men and women. Discuss how Swan’s characters compare to the men and women in your life. Do you think that Southern gender roles are different from those found elsewhere in America?

8. Occurring early in the novel, Ginger’s passionate scene with Marco is immediately followed by gruesome events in Magnolia Cemetery. How are attitudes toward sex and death entwined in the town of Swan?

9. Why do Ginger and J. J. have such opposing reactions to their father? How did your impression of Wills change when you learned of his connection to Dachau?

10. Do you suppose that Catherine would have rebuffed Austin’s marriage proposal if she had been born twenty years later? Is her situation reflected in Ginger’s first marriage? How does Catherine’s affair compare with her children’s romances?

11. Who were your primary suspects in Catherine’s murder? How would you have reacted in Sonny’s place?

A Year in the World
Reading Group Guide

1. Mayes opens her book with this quote from W.S. Merwin: “…we are words on a journey not the inscriptions of settled people.” Why do you think she has chosen this quote? What does it mean? When you read it how does it make you feel?

2. Throughout the book, Mayes talks about her lust for travel, using the German word Wanderjahr (their year of wandering in their youth). Do you think everyone should indulge in a year of youthful travel? Would it be better to experience this type of travel while young and impressionable, or at an older age, with more experience and wisdom?

3. Even though this is a book about travel, the concept of home is a consistent theme. Mayes writes, “The need to travel is a mysterious force. A desire to go runs through me equally with an intense desire to stay at home. An equal and opposite thermodynamic principal.” What does she mean by this? Deep down, do you consider Mayes to be a traveler or a homebody? Do both of these driving forces coexist within you? If so, how do you balance them?

4. Mayes describes Andalucía as an “ancient quest” for her because some of the music and poetry she enjoyed in her youth conjured up strong images of this place in her mind. So Andalucía is the first place she visits on her journey. Do you have a “first memory” of a place that you have never visited? Do you have preconceived notions about places, based on experiences or conversations you’ve had? Does a song, book, or poem “take you away” to a particular place?

5. While in Andalucía, Mayes falls prey to a scam. She is surprised but not outraged. Would she be so tolerant if this happened on her home turf? Have you ever made allowances for behaviors or attitudes while traveling that you would not normally have tolerated if you were at home?

6. Mayes describes herself as “a doubter” and yet she is fascinated by churches and other religious customs. She wears an ivory horn and other religious amulets under her skirt to ward off the “evil eye” and lights candles in Catholic churches for her sick friends. What do you make of this? Is Mayes a religious person deep down? How much do you think growing up in the American South has shaped her religious outlook? How has where you are from influenced your spiritual self?

7. Favoring to live like a local when she travels, Mayes makes obvious her disdain for tourists and how upsetting it is to her when a place is geared so obviously towards tourists. Isn’t Mayes herself a tourist? What makes someone a tourist? What makes someone a local?

8. Mayes talks about being driven to visit places by the books she reads. How do you decide where you’d like to travel?

9. Mayes says she fears retirement “in places where the climate is the lure.” What do you think she means by this? Would climate play an important role in your choice of where to retire? What other factors would play into your decision?

10. Naples has long been typecast as dangerous and corrupt. Mayes scoffs at these stereotypes. Have you ever felt discouraged to visit a place based on its bad reputation? Have you ever ignored a city’s bad reputation and visited there anyway? Did any of the stereotypes hold up? How did your preconceived notions about the place affect your experiences once there? Whose advice do you trust in choosing where to travel?

11. People love to buy souvenirs to help them remember a place they’ve visited. In Naples, Mayes buys a Neapolitan cookbook and her husband searches for a CD of local music. What do these purchases say about the buyers? What souvenirs have you purchased in the past that evoke special memories for you?

12. Mayes spends a lot of time describing food and drink. We hear in great detail about fabulous meals, Ed’s search for the perfect coffee, desserts that are unique to a certain location, and the wonderful marketplaces they encounter. Does experiencing the local cuisine enhance your visit to a particular place? Would you choose a lace to visit based entirely on the local fare?

13. Mayes and her husband choose many of their lodgings in order to more fully experience the local flavor. Some of the places they select turn out to be fairly undesirable–cold, cramped, sometimes even hazardous. When you travel, do you prefer to stay in a local dwelling or a touristy hotel? How much do your accommodations enhance or detract from your enjoyment of a particular place?

14. Why do you think Mayes chooses Georgia for the location of The Yellow Café? What did you think of her reaction when her daughter asked her about this? What do her answers and explanations tell us about Mayes and her ideas on home vs. Rome?