(Reviewed by Jenny Dressel FEB 10, 2003)"A Chamber of Commerce sign on the outskirts of town said in foot-high letters, If you lived here, youd be home now."
Frances Mayes, acclaimed author of her Tuscany memoirs, has written her first novel. She's given us a tour of a little town in Georgia called Swan, hence the title of the book.
The story begins with the desecration of Catherine Mason's grave, 19 years after her death by suicide. The year is 1975, and the townspeople are horrified by this crime committed in their sleepy little village. The sheriff has never seen anything like it, "he'd only been the county sheriff for three months and he hadn't faced anything other than car wrecks and fistfights." The Mason family chartered the town in 1875, 100 years later; they are still the family that holds the power in Swan. Catherine Mason's body lying beside her coffin, in the summer mud, is a tragic crime.
Catherines Children-- Ginger, studying archaeology in Tuscany, and J.J., fishing at the familys old cabin-- return to Swan to take care of the matter. Catherines husband, Wills Mason, resides on the outskirts of town at the Columns Rest Home. Having had a stroke many years ago, his sister, Lily, became the guardian of Ginger and J.J., after their mother died and he could no longer take care of them. Ginger was 12 and J.J. was 14 when they moved in with their Aunt Lily. The siblings grew up as the townspeople looked on and wondered what tragedy would fall on the childrens shoulders next.
It is here where the words "old Southern mystery" popped into my mind. Catherine may not have shot herself in 1956, as the sheriff of that time had concluded. An investigation, 19 years after the "suicide," ensues. Swan is no different from any other small community; it is full of secrets, and Mayes takes us through the maze of them all. Seemingly freed by the realization that their mother may not have killed herself, Ginger and J.J. start to delve into their mother's life. More secrets are revealed.
I love quirky characters and Mayes has written about a bunch. There's the spinster seamstress, Agnes Burkhardt, who lives with her sister, Evelyn, who is "subject to fits." Ralph Hunnicutt is the town's sheriff - his "granddaddy" conducted the investigation into Catherine Mason's death in 1956. Holt Whitfield is the school principal - he has a few secrets himself. But Holt has a finger on the pulse of the town. "We run on what's not said, he thought, at least in Swan we do. For all the talk talk talk we do, the crucial subjects are swallowed without a sound."
Besides the unusual characters, Southern novels always have a huge array of food, and Swan is no different. Swan's Bridge Club lunches on tomato aspic, cold pressed chicken and rolls as they gossip about Catherine Mason's tragic reappearance, and talkabout their friend, Lily Mason. Tessie and Lily make biscuits, strawberry shortcake and peach cobbler for Ginger's return from Tuscany; and Lily and Ginger have dinner one night at a barbecue shack having "Chipped pork doused in extra hot sauce, fried sweet potatoes and coleslaw. Pecan pie for dessert." We can't forget the obligatory iced tea. At one point, Ginger comments about the food - "Ah, sugar and grease- that's what I like about the South. I feel my arteries hardening with every bite."
I think I loved this book because the writing is so eloquent. I haven't read Frances Mayes' memoirs, Under the Tuscan Sun, Bella Tuscany and In Tuscany, so I really didn't know what I was going to find. This town that Mayes describes is so vivid, and her descriptions are beautiful. For example, Ginger is describing her homeland to a colleague in Tuscany, The land used to be a sea and the rivers still have white sandbars that emerge when the water is low, shed tell him. In the summer, the heat makes you feel as though youre walking under water, the heat engulfs you, and as you can in water, you feel currents of heavier and lighter heat when you walk, moving streams and rivulets of coolness in the air.
It has been a pretty ugly winter here in the Mid-Atlantic States this year. There were a few good snowfalls, but for the most part, everyone is ready for spring. Thanks to Frances Mayes, I spent a week in July in a tiny town called Swan, Georgia. It was just perfect, I think. Now I need to brew some more iced tea.
- Amazon readers rating: from 7 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Swan at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Swan (October 2002)
- Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy (1996)
- Bella Tuscany: The Sweet Life in Italy (1999)
- In Tuscany (2000)
- Bringing Tuscany Home (October 2004)
- A Year in the World: Journeys of a Passionate Traveller (March 2006)
- Shrines: Images of Italian Worship (October 2006) (with Steven Rothfeld)
- The Discovery of Poetry (1994)
Movies from Books:
- Under the Tuscan Sun (2003)
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- Salon.com article on Frances Mayes
- Ruffino interview with Frances Mayes
- January Magazine interview with Frances Mayes
- A Web site devoted to Under the Tuscan Sun
- BookReporter.com review of Under the Tuscan Sun
- Reading Group Guide for Swan
- Washington Post review of Swan
- SFGate review of Swan
- ReviewOfBooks.com collection of reviews for Swan
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About the Author:
Frances Mayes grew up in Fitzgerald, Georgia. She was educated at Randolph-Macon Woman's College, The University of Florida, and San Francisco State University.
A widely published poet and essayist, Mayes has also written five books of poetry. Until 1996, she was the Professor of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University, where she directed The Poetry Center and chaired the Department of Creative Writing. Her poetry and essays has appeared in Poetry, The Atlantic Monthly, The Iowa Review, New American Writing, Manoa, The Women's Review of Books, Volt, The American Poetry Review, The American Scholar, The Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review and other literary magazines. She was granted a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1988.
She is also the author of three best-selling books about Italy. All three highly personal books are about taking chances, living in Italy, loving and renovating an old Italian villa, and the pleasures of food as well as the "voluptuousness of Italian life." Her book, Under the Tuscan Sun is currently in production as a major motion picture, featuring actress Diane Lane.
Mayes now devotes herself full time to writing. She an her husband, Edward Kleinschmidt Mayes, divide their time between San Francisco and Cortona, Italy.