Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
- Mayes writes, "It can be dangerous to travel. A strong
reflecting light is cast back on 'real life,' sometimes a disquieting
experience." What does she mean? How does travel change your perception of
yourself? Has a hidden piece of your identity ever been revealed to you through
- While in Sicily, Mayes connects existential thoughts of death with
traveling. "Why am I here where I don't belong? What is this alien place?
I fell I'm in a strange afterlife, a faint blowing with the winds. I suspect the
subtext to this displacement is the dread of death. Who and where are you when
you are no one?" Do these thoughts of displacement enter your mind when you
travel? Do you think they are connected to a fear of death?
- How is Mayes's trip to Sicily different from her travels in Tuscany
and the Veneto? What are specific traits of the Sicilian character? What in
Sicily's history can account for these traits? Are there regional differences in
your own country that are as vivid?
- At one of the many extravagant feasts he attends throughout the book,
Ed remarks, speaking of the bitter after-dinner drinks called amari, "Italians seem to have acquired more tastes than many of us." Do you
agree? Why might that be the case? How is Italy's relationship to food different
from that of other countries?
- On a number of occasions, Mayes describes the many elaborate gestures
Italians have for expressing how good food is. Do any of them make sense to you?
How many gestures do you have to show your enjoyment of food? How often do you
use these gestures? What does it mean to frequently express your appreciation of
food through physical gestures? What does that say about a culture?
- Why do you think Mayes includes recipes in her book? What is the
effect of the recipes on you, the reader? Does it bring her story more alive? If
so, how? Do you intend to make any of the dishes? Which ones? Is your interest
in these specific dishes connected to Mayes's narrative?
- Throughout her travels in Italy, Mayes frequently encounters ancient
Roman and Etruscan monuments. How does the historical scope of Italy change her
perception of time? Does it change yours just by reading about the ancient
landscape? How do you think growing up, surrounded by so much ancient history,
would change a person? Do you see those differences in the Italians that Mayes
encounters? How do these Italians feel about their heritage?
- Mayes writes of the balance between "ambition, solitude,
stimulation, adventure...What is replenishing? What is depleting? What takes?
What gives? What wrings you out and, truly, what rinses you with
happiness?" Do you think restoring Bramasole in the summers and teaching
the rest of the year in San Francisco is a good balance? What balance have you
struck? Are you content with it?
- What is the relationship of the foraging woman, who used to work at Bramasole, to the estate now? Is she trespassing when she picks their fruits and
mushrooms? How is the sense of land ownership profoundly different in Tuscany
than in Mayes's native California?
- Mayes writes, "The garden, I begin to see, is a place where I
can give memory a location and season in which to remain alive...Scents operate
like music and poetry, stirring up wordless feelings that rush through the body,
not as cognitive thoughts but as a surge of lymphatic tide." What do your
plants or garden mean to you? Is your garden a repository of memories of places,
events, or loved ones? Do you use scents to remember?
- Quoting a haiku from Basho, Mayes writes, "Deep Autumn, my
neighbor, how does he live, I wonder?" Why do you think Mayes travels? Why
do you? Does your urge to travel change as you get older? What inspires you to
leave your home and wander?
- What is the relationship Italians have with art? How does Mayes
attempt to emulate that relationship? What role does art play in your day-to-day
life? How do you access art in your everyday existence?
- How is Mayes's rose garden in conflict with Anselmo's olive trees?
Why do you think the olive trees are so important to Anselmo? Is there a larger
issue at stake here?
- Mayes writes that, "Multilingual friends assure me that a new
personality emerges when one acquires a new language." Have you experienced
that, or seen it in others? Do you see a change in Mayes over the course of her
year spent on sabbatical in Tuscany?
- Mayes asks, "What can we take back [from Tuscany] to our lives
in the new house [in California]? What accounts for the dramatic shift in our
minds and bodies when we live [in Tuscany]?" How do you incorporate life
lessons you've learned in your travels, or while on vacation? How do you infuse
your daily working life with the spirit of Tuscany? What specific, concrete
changes in your life did Bella Tuscany inspire?
- Why do you think Mayes was unable to recognize her ex-husband at the
rehearsal dinner for their daughter's marriage? Has your world ever been so
transformed as to make the past unrecognizable?
- Bella Tuscany brings the Tuscan countryside so vividly to life. As
you journey through Tuscany with Mayes, through a year of changing seasons, what
specific images have left an indelible imprint on your mind? Have you been to
Tuscany? Do you plan on returning?
- Bramasole is in perpetual need of repair. Mayes's restoration work
will never end. Would she have been better off buying a more modern villa? What
is her attraction to dilapidated buildings? Do you share it? If you restore your
own house, does it change your relationship to it? How so?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Broadway Books.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.