Review: At Least You’re in Tuscany: A Somewhat Disastrous Quest for the Sweet Life; Jennifer Criswell

Not so very sweet after all… (4 stars)

Source- review copy

Published by Gemelli Press, September 2012

I read the Kindle version. The paperback edition is 216 pages

Most of us can only dream of escaping to that perfect life abroad: a foreign country basked in hot sunshine and steeped in culture with wonderful food and an eclectic array of people. Very few of us actually get the chance to live out such an idyll though, so I was highly looking forward to reading American Jennifer Criswell’s account of her giving up her life in the New York and her first year of living in a small Tuscan hillside town.

Expat memoirs are admittedly ten-a-penny these days and I’ve read a lot of them set in Italy, but this one sounded entertaining from the outset as Jennifer doesn’t head to Montepulciano loaded with cash or a hefty family inheritance to rely on, she doesn’t have a ‘dream villa’ or an Olive Farm ready to move into, nor does she even have a job waiting for her when she gets there. Criswell heads to the town with only some small savings and her beloved dog Cinders in tow. She isn’t fluent in Italian either, but language barriers are only small facets of her troubles to come…

This is ultimately a story of perseverance and fitting in. It is the tale of one woman’s determination to live out her dream, despite all the challenges (of which there are many!) thrown her way. I found it to be quite an inspiring story and admired Criswell for pursuing her goals. She has been brave (or foolish!) enough to take a step that most of us would balk at.

The writing flows very well; it contains some very funny anecdotes as the realisation dawns on Jennifer that perhaps she has bitten off more than she can chew and that life in her new home may not be as simple as she has anticipated. Above all, it remains honest: Jennifer doesn’t sugar-coat her experiences and in detail covers the struggles that she endures in not only fitting in and always feeling like an outsider, but also her problems with the Italian bureaucracy and search for employment. Poignant in places as it explores her numerous troubles and loneliness, on the positive side it is much lifted by the evocative scene setting and the concise descriptions of the characters that she meets in Montepulciano, which sounds like a gorgeous place to live and steeped in interesting history.

A few aspects I didn’t like: similar to a lot of memoirs I’ve read about an ex-pats life abroad, I was a bit irritated by the authors random insertation of Italian words into a sentence that otherwise comprised of English words for the most part. I always find this jarring, not to mention a bit pretentious and odd, though this is down to personal taste of course. You are learning Italian; the book is set in… Italy! I get it, truly I do. Sigh.

Also, for a woman approaching forty I felt that Criswell could be a bit naïve at times; not only in being so ill-prepared in moving to a whole other country without any planning, but also in her dalliances with a local (married) fruit and vegetable vendor. Again, down to my personal opinion but I have no tolerance for women (or men) who willingly enter into relationships when they know the other party is taken.

Personal feelings aside, I do think that Criswell must be commended- for not only jumping into her adventure feet first and following her dream (how many of us would ever be that brave?), but also for sticking with it and writing this humorous and brutally honest story of her experiences, warts and all. I found it to be an enlightening read and despite all of her bad experiences it makes me long to head back to Italy myself and visit Montepulciano to see the places she has introduced us to.  I would certainly recommend this book for all Italophiles or simply to those readers merely wanting a ‘feel good’ account of a new life abroad.

Some other writers of Italian travel memoirs worth checking out:

  • Frances Mayes
  • Marlena de Blasi
  • Annie Hawes
  • Isabella Dusi

One response to “Review: At Least You’re in Tuscany: A Somewhat Disastrous Quest for the Sweet Life; Jennifer Criswell

  1. Pingback: March Reading Analysis: Spring definitely hasn’t sprung… | my good bookshelf·

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