BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, April 2014

Frances Mayes’ lyrical memoir of growing up Southern was a long time coming. Worried about upsetting her family, she stopped and started Under Magnolia many times over: “Anytime I felt the impulse to start my Southern opus again, I instead headed for a movie or a new Thai restaurant,” she writes. “I’d go jogging or read a novel until the impulse faded.”

Thank goodness she finally gave in to her impulses to dare alla luce, as the Tuscans say, to give the book to the light. This memoir from the author of Under the Tuscan Sun is a lovely, soul-baring look back at growing up in Fitzgerald, Georgia, the youngest of three daughters. Her family was chaotic, to say the least. Her parents were at war with each other from the first drink of the day, desperately unhappy but unable to make changes.

“I said many things to myself by the age of seven,” Mayes writes. “If I ever get out of here, I will never select unhappiness. When the plate of unhappiness is passed around and more and more is offered, I’ll say no thank you, no. But they wanted seconds, thirds.”

Much younger than her sisters, Mayes bore the brunt of her parents’ dysfunction. Her saving graces were books and Willie Bell, the woman who had been working for the family since before Mayes was born. Less confidant and more co-conspirator, Willie Bell took care of Mayes in her own brusque way: feeding her, advising her to go play outside to escape the toxic house.

Mayes also recalls her cloistered years at Randolph-Macon, the women’s college in Virginia where she cultivated some of her deepest friendships and her deep love of writing. (“We began to forget we were supposed to please men,” she writes. “There weren’t any.”).

Under Magnolia is a gorgeous, dreamy remembrance of hot Southern afternoons, mothers in red lipstick and Shalimar, Elvis turned up loud to cover up the family troubles that ran deep. An unflinching love song to her simultaneously rich and troubled childhood, it is Mayes’ most generous work yet.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Frances Mayes for Under Magnolia.

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