Peter Mayle

A Year in Provence

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A Year in Provence Summary

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In A Year in Provence, the best-selling 1989 memoir by Peter Mayle, the author and his wife buy a 200-year-old home in southern France and experience the culture shock and growing pains of a new life outside England. Mayle documents the first year of their life in Provence, including the amazing cuisine, strange local customs, onslaught of wanted and unwanted house guests, and the peace he and his wife manage to find despite their struggle to learn the language and establish themselves as permanent residents. The book is followed by a series of non-fiction sequels: Toujours Provence (1991), Encore Provence (1999), and French Lessons (2001). It was also adapted into a less well-received mini-series, and inspired the movie A Good Year and the satirical novel A Year in the Province by Christopher Marsh.

Mayle and his wife move to Provence at the beginning of the new year, after traveling to the continent as tourists for many years. The book is structured after the calendar year, with each chapter recounting the events of a single month. The farmhouse is located in the Luberon Mountains, a rural area with a strong local dialect and many strange customs. The book recounts a series of misadventures and learning curves, but the recurring theme of Mayle’s memoir is the food he eats – he describes vividly his New Year’s lunch, ends the book with a portrait of Christmas dinner, and spends the middle sections of the novel depicting meals in vivid detail.

The first bizarre experience the couple have involves the Mistral, a strong, cold wind that blows through the valley where they live in the winter, sometimes for up to two weeks at a time. To add to the escapade, the pipes in their farmhouse freeze and they have to call a plumber, the first of many contractors they’ll meet in Provence. The plumber, they discover, has a different sense of time than they were accustomed to back in England – he works at a leisurely pace while the wind blows, and the pipes remain frozen.

A large part of the madness of the first year in Provence comes from the guests, some of whom come from England and others of whom are casual acquaintances that arrive and sit by the pool and drink their wine uninvited. Meanwhile, the house is under construction as the contractors labor to get it back into good working order. The couple seek support at dinner parties with local families, but the dialect is so strong they can hardly understand the conversations that go on. The couple feels like they live in-between worlds, not quite English because they aren’t in England, and not nearly French enough to make their way comfortably in their new home.

There are many strange events that bring levity to the memoir – the couple goes truffle hunting with locals, watch goat races, and navigate the infuriating complexity of French bureaucracy. They have funny run-ins at the market, visit vineyards, and even experience blood donation in the lazy French province. These stories highlight the humor in the couple’s discomfort.

At its heart, Mayle’s book embraces the nuances of culture, and the strangeness of trying to make a new home in a world so unfamiliar from the one in which you were raised. Even just across the channel in a region they visited frequently as tourists, the Mayles’ feel like aliens in their adopted home. The book also embraces, with humor and sincerity, the beauty of southern French culture. Mayle is obviously in awe of the exquisite craftsmanship and preparation of meals, the gathering of ingredients, the freshness of the products in the market. And though it is unfamiliar to them, the couple does begin to fall in love with the slow pace of life in rural Provence.

At the end of the memoir, Mayle and his wife find peace in their newly renovated and empty home. The guests are gone, the carpenters have departed, and the house is complete. After a year of madness and adjustment, the couple finally feels settled in their new house, and enjoy the solitude and the peace that comes from just being together in this beautiful part of the world.

A Year in Provence was an unintentional work of Mayle’s, which lead to his greatest success as an author and prompted him to leave his home in Provence for a few years to avoid the hordes of tourists who wanted to visit after the book became a best-seller. Mayle had planned to move to the Luberon region to complete a novel in the works, but was so fascinated by his new environment that he chose to write the memoir instead. It became popular enough to warrant a few more books, which the author published in subsequent years. In 2002, Mayle was awarded the Legion D’Honneur, the highest order of merit in France, for his contributions to the culture. He wrote a quartet of novels before his death in 2018.