A Valley in Italy by Lisa St Aubin de Teran

First published in 1994 by Hamish Hamilton. Published by Penguin Books in 1995

I’m thinking I should read more memoirs from now on. Less novels and more travelogues or whatever they are called, recollections of travelling experiences. Because A Valley in Italy is just glorious. I haven’t come across something that touched me so deeply in a long while, a book that not only entertained me, but tapped me ever so gently on the soul.

I suspect the story of people going into some exotic locale in some rustic country setting and falling in love with a house and buying it on an impulse and having an adventure with its renovation, and being overwhelmed by the task, and in the midst of it all, discovers little gems in the experience with the locals, with little pearls of wisdom and wit and humility thrown in, as well as eccentric and charming little characters. Oh fuck I feel the word ‘quirky’ coming on… oh well there it is. I don’t think such a feel-good story is original. Surely it has been done countless times.

But no matter, because I haven’t read those other countless times. I’ve never even seen that Diane Lane movie with such a plot/theme set in Tuscany. I’ve only experienced A Valley in Italy, and I love Lisa’s storytelling. She’s not only funny and witty, but there’s also a feeling of honesty and straightforwardness in the recount of her experiences. There’s no turning on the charm offensive of her entertaining characters and the town of Sant’Orsola. No romanticising or mushy nostalgia through tinted lenses. Everything there and her experiences there were just described in plain language, but it’s just that the way she speaks happens to be peppered with wit and heart.

For example the part where she and her husband were shown the villa in the beginning of the book, well that was told plainly and seamlessly that I flew past it. And when I finished the book, I found myself going right back to the beginning and flipping through the pages, to find exactly that important part when she found and acquired that villa that was the central figure in the book. And there it was beginning on page nine, quite plainly told. The features of the building that entranced her were just in one and a half paragraphs, and then simply:

Robbie and I had agreed to buy this villa, no matter what, from the moment we turned into its dusty drive. We began juggling lists of friends and family who might be willing to share the project and stretch our own pygmy capital  to whatever might be the asking price of such a beauty. An hour later, I found myself in a small office in a nearby town handing over a cheque for 20 per cent of its price, in return for which I was given a sheet of lined paper with a lot of names and dates of birth on it, along with a glancing reference to the purchase of the Villa Orsola.

No drama, no bells toiling in her head or her gushing on and on about how she has finally found The One.

I wonder at which point exactly I fell in love with her memoir. I love her earthy voice, her no-nonsense tone, her tact and temperament. They make me think collectively of the teachers I had, all female, at the Italian Cultural Institute in Singapore, where I was enrolled in night classes to study the language to a conversational level. That was many years ago and my command of the language has since deteriorated due to a lack of practice. I also love her descriptions of her love for nature, her observations of it and the changing seasons and the work and love she put into the beginnings of her garden… it makes me wish I don’t suck at gardening.

Anyway, this book was the second I found and picked up from a common seating area at the hotel in Rome I’m staying at, and that’s where I’m putting it back. If some day I happen to see it in a bookstore, new or secondhand, I’ll be sure to pick it up for the pleasure of re-reading it anytime I want.

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