By Frances Mayes
Published by Broadway
October 2002; 0-7679-0285-8; 320 pages
J. stood on the end of the dock, feeling as if the four pilings might
rip loose in the current and send him rafting. But the dock held. He loved
the smell of rivers. In July heat, in wavy air, in the throbbing of cicadas,
in the first light on the river, he was what he would call happy. A full
moon angled down between pines, casting a spiraling silver rope across
the curve of the water. He watched the light, flicking through his mind
for words to describe it. Luminous, flashing. Ordinary. The light seemed
liquid, alive, annealed to the water, too changeable for any word. The
river rode high after two storms. A cloud of gnats swarmed his foot, then
moved as a single body over a swirl in the current. He stepped out of
his faded red bathing suit--automatically he pulled on this suit every
morning when he got out of bed--and climbed down the ladder into the water.
His morning libations, he called this routine. In all the good months,
and sometimes in the cold ones just for sheer cussedness, he dipped himself
in the river early in the morning. Near the dock he could stand on the
bottom, feeling the swiftness or languidness of the current, sometimes
jumping as a fish nipped at the hairs on his legs and chest. He floated
for a minute, listening to water whirl around his head, letting himself
be carried, then turned his body sharply and swam over to the crescent
of washed-sand beach his parents had cleared years ago. From there he
could walk out of the river and follow a trace covered in pine needles
back to the dock. He noticed a fallen sourwood sapling, tangled with muscadine
vines, and leaned to pull it out of the water. As he jerked loose the
roots, a wedge of earth cleaved from the bank, spilling dirt onto his
wet legs. At his feet he saw something white--a bone, a stick bleached
by the sun? He waded back into the river and rinsed off.
he rubbed his temples and looked again. A pleasant face, kind and expectant.
Warm. What is she wanting? he wondered as she smiled. Then he noticed
her teeth, which were ground down, like an old deer's.
crouched in the hip bath, running the nozzle over her dusty body. Her
damp field trousers and shirt heaped on the floor seemed to exude more
dust. She bathed fast. This far into the Tuscan summer, the well might
go dry, leaving her to cook and sponge off with bottled water until a
rain came, raising the water table again. She slipped into the hot cerise
dress with straps she'd bought at the Saturday market in Monte Sant'Egidio,
thinking, I'm thin again. Marco will like this dress. She allowed herself
to think of the pleasure of his hand on her back, guiding her across the
piazza. His Italian hand. She loved his foreignness. She sucked in her
breath. Lithe, she thought. Amazing what miracles a few months of digging
and hauling can accomplish. She changed the sheets, boxed the pillows,
stacked her books neatly on the bedside table. Stuffing her nightgown
and robe in a drawer, she stopped in midgesture. A memory hit her of Mitchell,
whom she'd married at twenty-four. Mitchell in bed, reading Time, all
scrubbed and expectant in pressed boxers. For most of their three years
together, he spent his nights waiting while Ginger outwaited him downstairs,
reading or listening to music until he dozed off and she crept to bed,
carefully lifting the magazine off his chest and turning out his light.
What was it? she asked herself. Not him. When they dated, she'd thought
she would fall into his love, his certainty; she would begin to feel something.
She would sit, crawl, walk. She would be like everyone else with a silver
pattern, a honeymoon in Nassau, a foil card of birth control pills, curtains
to choose, recipes. Mitchell was so fine, she thought, patient. Anytime
he walked in a door, she'd been happy to see him. What a disaster.
In her celebrated memoirs of life in Tuscany, Frances Mayes writes masterfully about people in a powerful and shaping place. In Swan, her first novel, she has created an equally intimate world, rich with striking characters and intriguing twists of fate, that hearkens back to her southern roots.
The Masons are a prominent but now fragmented family who have lived for generations in Swan, an edenic, hidebound small town in Georgia. As Swan opens, a bizarre crime pulls Ginger Mason home from her life as an archeologist in Italy: The body of her mother, Catherine, a suicide nineteen years before, has been mysteriously exhumed. Reunited on new terms with her troubled, isolated brother J.J., who has never ventured far from Swan, the Mason children grapple with the profound effects of their mother's life and death on their own lives. When a new explanation for Catherines death emerges, and other closely guarded family secrets rise to the surface as well, Ginger and J.J. are confronted with startling truths about their family, a particular ordeal in a family and a town that wants to keep the past buried.
Beautifully evoking the rhythms and idiosyncrasies of the deep South while telling an utterly compelling story of the complexity of family ties, Swan marks the remarkable fiction debut of one of Americas best-loved writers.(back to top)
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.