Last year, Mrs. Next and I embarked on a wonderful trip to England and France. I visited France at 18 and always wanted to return. Neither of us had been to England, despite my long-held interest in the country, especially for its many cultural exports--music, film, literature, humor, oh and there was some history, as well. In fact, Mrs. Next had never made the transatlantic trip before so this was a big deal.
In the planning stages, I realized I was over my head and turned to a dear old friend, Wendy, the former groovy ghoulie and now, so glamorous, it hurts to look at her. She plied her travel agents' experience, I brushed up on the French I failed to learn well in college, and we had a marvelous time. With each leg of the journey, Mrs. Next and I were delighted again and again. And so we found ourselves staying at le Bastide de Marie, a luscious resort in a town called Menerbes. Chatting poolside with an English couple, we learned that the book, A Year in Provence, was set in this very town.
Years ago, when I was just a cub of a bookseller, you couldn't swing a salami without running into a Peter Mayle book. He became something of his own industry with his travelogues of being a transplant in southern France. He was on the bestseller lists for ages. This book begat sequels and calendars and fifty-year old women dreamily describing how much they loved his work as you rang them out. Naturally, in my callow youth, I was a skeptic and a snob. "Who the hell cares about life in small-town France?", late-twenties Reed Next snorted, "I read heady, provocative, contemporary fiction, damnit!"
To say the least, A Year in Provence is a delight and not simply because we stayed in Menerbes. Mayle's storytelling style is so breezy and nonchalant, it belies the hard work that writing must be to be this good. He brings out the color in the characters and their many idiosyncrasies, which are likely quite maddening in real life but damned charming from a distance. He is also able to capture the beauty of the region and the French way of life as to make both irresistible to our hurried American existence. And did I mention Mayle is funny?
I will admit to remaining skeptical and snobbish though slightly adjusted for my age. However, I'm at the very age when I look back on our trip as dreamily as the readers Peter Mayle enchanted 20 years ago. Mrs. Next and I will return to the south of France in the near future, perhaps even taking a sabbatical and teaching English or something equally silly for a middle-aged man and his ageless bride. Neither of us can wait.