I received a copy of Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir by Frances Mayes for review through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.
About the Book:
Under Magnolia is another memoir from Frances Mayes of Under the Tuscan Sun fame. Only this time, instead of exploring Italy, Mayes turns her attention to her childhood in the Deep South. Beginning with her early memories, Under Magnolia follows Mayes through her high school and college years, ending when she at last takes off for the West Coast.
I was a fan of Under the Tuscan Sun when it came out. More the movie than the book, but I did read and enjoy Mayes’s account of buying and rehabbing a run-down home in Tuscany. I liked the way Mayes wrote. She was good at capturing in writing the quality of remembering, the way some moments are razor-sharp while others are elusive and wispy. I was pleased to find that Under Magnolia has much the same quality to it. At the same time, though her writing is studded with the occasional literary gem, Mayes manages to avoid waxing too flowery and poetic.
Another aspect of Under Magnolia I appreciated was that Mayes did not put much effort into setting her story in the broader context of history. That may sound odd — who doesn’t like context? But I don’t think ten-year-old Frances was thinking much about what was going on in the country at large, and I found it fitting that Mayes tailored her focus to represent that.
Places and things play their part in Under Magnolia, of course. The South itself, its culture and atmosphere and geography, is a major part of what Mayes recalls about her time growing up there, and it had a strong influence on her life. But it is the people I’ll remember. There are old photographs sprinkled throughout the book — nearly all of people — which I particularly enjoyed. Mayes spends most of her time on her parents (and her mother in particular), her paternal grandfather (still living nearby), and Willie Bell, the African American woman who worked for Mayes’s family when she was a child. Mayes’s older sisters, on the other hand, barely have names, and enough boys wander through the pages that they’re hard to keep straight. It’s clear that the former were towering giants in Mayes’s early life, while the latter simply skipped across the surface. I found this pattern of emphasis to be interesting and telling in and of itself.
There is a bit of a disjointed feel to the book, particularly in the first half. It’s a little hard to get a toehold in terms of narrative and timeline. At first, this amorphous quality bothered me, and I had trouble really getting into the book. But as the stories slowly resolved themselves into something a bit more concrete later in the book, I came to realize that perhaps this style was intentional. After all, who can tell the events of their early childhood with as much clarity and chronology as they can their college years? The way in which Mayes chose to tell her story may be a reflection of just that, either intentionally or not.
The Verdict: Enjoyable
Under Magnolia is nice if you’re in the market for a memoir. It’s well-written, interesting, evocative. And if you are a fan of Frances Mayes, this newest of her books shines a light on a part of her she’s not yet known for. Overall, a good book.
What memoirs are among your favorites?